February 23, 2024

The recent visit of United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion Irene Khan to Baguio City can be a big boost or a damper to the claim the city is a haven for geniune freedom of expression advocates and human rights defenders.
For those who believe there are no human rights violations committed in the city, the visit of Khan was an opportunity to showcase how flawlessly the justice system is working in Baguio.
There is no doubt the city is a peaceful place and most of its residents are free to express their views on issues affecting the city, country, and the Filipinos in general. We seldom witness cases involving violations of one’s freedom to express.
We still believe in the integrity of our local justice system and the people of the courts are operating independently, free from the whims of the powers that be.
The fact that Khan included the city in her 10-day visit to the Philippines to assess the country’s state of human rights, particularly on freedom of expression and opinion, raises a concern on the extent of freedom the residents have, especially in the context of the national government’s counter-insurgency program, where people who criticize or express their objections to a particular project or a policy are branded as enemies of the State.
Khan’s closed-door meeting with non-government organizations and individuals who have been sued and are still facing cases stemming from the exercise of their freedom of expression or simply by defending their rights does not also invalidate the fact that there are people whose rights have been violated.
Just because they are few does not mean they are insignificant. Oppressive societies turn out the way they are because of the people’s failure or their indifference to fight against attempts to stifle the freedom or trample upon the rights of even a small portion of a society that is fighting for a just and legitimate cause.
The concerns raised by members of the City Council in their letter to Khan, about the red-tagging of some local officials or their being labeled as sympathizers of the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People’s Army, which were tagged as terrorist organizations, also show there is much to be done in terms of protecting the rights of Baguio residents.
We raise this because the labeling of some city officials as terrorist sympathizers stemmed simply from their call to stop red-tagging of student leaders and NGOs and from expressing their support to defenders of human rights, including that of the indigenous peoples.
This again brings to light the issue that if local officials can be labeled as terrorist sympathizers only because they are supporting human rights defenders, then those who are directly working on human rights promotion and protection are doubly at risk of being vilified and wrongly labeled.
We recognize the efforts of the city council in making Baguio an inclusive human rights city and in coming up with a proposed legislation that seeks to protect the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders operating in the city. This, somehow, is a reassurance residents have allies at the city government.
Defending human rights and ensuring these are respected, however, do not end with the passage of laws and legislations. These should be complemented with having residents who are not afraid to speak against or vigilant against violations and attempts to suppress human rights.
This is the only way we can guarantee that Baguio will remain a haven for freedom of expression advocates and genuine human rights defenders.