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World Press Freedom day

It was sad that the annual commemoration of the right that has enabled democracy to exist, freedom of the press, came and went without any form of commemoration in the Philippines. Not only that, instead of a fitting celebration, PNoy himself appeared to have belittled the value of a free press when he responded, on the occasion of Obama’s visit, that most of the victims of media killings are not “work related”.

Again, it was unfortunate that the killing of journalists, high up in the US State department’s list of concerns about the Philippines, took a back seat to the EDCA, which was the subject of intense pubic debate. But the President’s nonchalant way of dismissing media killings as “non- work” related, deserves equal condemnation as the one-sided and Anti-Filipino EDCA.

To begin with, the President’s remarks reflects  ignorance on how the human rights community perceives media killing. This is hardly surprising given his ignorance too of the law on state responsibility when he adamantly refused to take responsibility for the Hong Kong tourists massacre and the killing of the Taiwanese fisherman off Batanes. While ordinary mortals can, perhaps, be forgiven for their ignorance, PNoy is President and should have known better.

His view is opposite to the view expressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, who has long said that the killing of journalists is prima facie work related. This is because it’s simply unworkable to distinguish between the official role of journalists from their personal lives. Journalists, like priests, lawyers, or any other professional, should practice in their every day life the ideals and high standards dictated by the practice of their profession. Journalists are responsible for contributing inputs in the free market place of ideas. Their inputs are then used by the public in assessing the truth and in forming their opinions. This is why their roles are crucial in a democracy Without a free market place of ideas; we do not know what the truth is. Without a market place of ideas, there will be no debates on what the truth is.

This is why journalists are targeted in the first place. The killing of journalists is the ultimate form of censorship imposed by those who fear the truth. The fact that we are the most murderous country in the world for journalists reflects the prevalence of the worse form of censorship. PNoy’s justification that they are not work-related adds ignominy to the killings because the state, which is duty bound to put an end to these killings, is instead justifying them.

Does it make it any less worrisome if these killings are in fact not work related? Certainly not. The duty of the Philippines under human rights law is to protect and promote the right to life. The killings of journalists add ignominy to the breach of the right to life. The fact that the victims may not have been killed because of their profession does not make the killings any less a breach of an international obligation.

In any case, the President’s declaration also highlights his administration’s lack of political will to address these killings. The fact that the administration’s point to the Ampatuan prosecution as proof of its  discharge of duties is a cause for alarm. Five years after the gruesome murder, no has been punished for it. The Ampatuan massacre therefore, contrary to the Palace claim, is further proof of breach of the same obligation. It is testament to his administrations failure to accord the victims an adequate remedy under domestic law, which should be just and expeditious.

Vergel Santos was right. What can  we expect from a President who prior to his assumption of office- never held a real job. The Presidency requires extensive work experience and the wisdom derived from it. This President has neither the experience nor the wisdom for the job.

Meanwhile the killings continue. Just yesterday, we had the 27th victim of media killings under PNoy. At the rate journalists are being killed, they will soon be a rarity in our society.

It is crystal clear that under this administration, Press Freedom cannot be celebrated. We can only mourn for every journalist that is killed. There’s bound to be a lot more of them with the prevailing sense of impunity.

This article first appeared in http://manilastandardtoday.com/2014/05/08/world-press-freedom-day/

P Noy: Why have thou forsaken us?

maguindanao1I wondered what P Noy would say in this year’s SONA about the Maguindanao massacre and other cases of extralegal killings in the country. Since becoming President, he has consistently said something about this malaise. This may be because when he still seeking the people’s mandate, he sought an audience with our clients and promised that the prosecution of the perpetrators of the massacre would be on top of his priorities. This was why one of our clients, Myrna Reblando, wife of slain Manila Bulletin journalist, “Bong” Reblando, the only full time journalist of a national broad sheet to perish in the massacre, agreed to publicly endorse him in a television advertisement broadcasted at the tail end of the campaign period in 2010. That endorsement earned Myrna front seat sitting in P Noy’s inauguration at Luneta.

In 2010, while not expressly mentioning the Maguindanao massacre, P Noy did promise that he would “punish” the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings. In 2011, he expressed confidence that the Department of Justice will go after those behind these extrajudicial killings. In 2012, he expressly promised that he would accord the victims of the massacre justice. Earlier this year, the Secretary of Justice declared that the prosecution of the case would be finished within the term of P Noy.

I then expected that the President would reiterate De Lima’s promise to finish the prosecution of the case before 2016. Alternatively, I was hoping that our recent expose that about 14 of the victims almost entered into a settlement with the accused would prompt the government to discharge its duty to pay compensation to the victims as a consequence of the Philippine state’s breach of its obligation to protect and promote the right to life of the victims. While Deputy Presidential mouth Valte exhibited her gross ignorance of human rights law when she said that this administration will not pay compensation to the victims since it was not responsible for the massacre; I was hoping that those with brains in the administration, such as Secretary Leila De Lima or Secretary Ronald Llamas, maybe upon the prodding’s of CHR Chair Etta Rosales, would already correct the mistake of the mouth named Valte.

So for 1 hour 45 minutes, I, with millions of other Filipinos, eagerly awaited the Presidential pronouncement on how he would protect and promote the most important right of all rights, the right to life.

My heart was hence tattered into pieces when after an hour and forty-five minutes of waiting, the President concluded his SONA without mentioning a single word on either extrajudicial killings or the Maguindanao massacre. My immediate reaction was one of panic. Oh my God, I said, the President is not even sure that the trial of the century could be concluded during his term! If it could not be done during the term of one who had not benefitted from the Ampatuans of Maguindanao, what would happen to the case should the President to be elected in 2016 be indebted anew to the family of the accused? It would certainly be hopeless for the victims.

The fact that I felt this sense of despair is actually to commend P Noy. I have always acknowledged that he is one of the few politicians who did not benefit from the Ampatuans of Maguindanao. On the contrary, he was one of those who allegedly got zero votes in the province in the 2007 elections. This is reason to be confident that there would be a level playing field in the prosecution of the massacre during his administration. But the reality is outside of P Noy, almost all of the contenders in 2016, unless the likes of Grace Poe, Chiz Escudero, or Allan Cayetano make a go for the Presidency, have had some ties with the Ampatuans of Maguindanao. This means that the possibility of a conviction, at least during my lifetime, has dimmed. This is because P Noy’s silence on the massacre is an implied admission that no one is certain when the prosecution of the country’s worse massacre will conclude.

It was also worrisome that despite the fact that there have already been 15 cases of extrajudicial killings of journalists in P Noy’s three-year-old administration, the President was equally silent on what he intends to do with the perpetrators of these killings. This prompted the Human Rights Watch to declare, “We are dismayed that President Aquino, in his State of the Nation Address today, chose not to talk about the continuing culture of impunity in the Philippines. We are disappointed that he did not take the opportunity to communicate to the military and the police that they will be held accountable for human rights violations. President Aquino’s failure to denounce abuses against outspoken activists, environmentalists, clergy and journalists sends the wrong message to abusive security forces and corrupt politicians”. The Center for International Law, for its part declared: “The President’s failure to state how he intend to finish the prosecution of the massacre case points to a lack of political will to punish those who will violate freedom of the press and the right to life”.

As for the victims, three of them, Monette Salaysay, Editha Tiamzon, and Cipriana Gatchalian tearfully asked on the occasion of the 44th month commemoration of the massacre held only a day after the SONA: “why have thou forsaken us?”

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MALAYSIA SHOULD RESPECT FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IN SABAH

Ref:  Prof. H. Harry L. Roque Jr.  is President,of  Media Defense Southeast Asia

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Malaysia should respect freedom of the press in the standoff in Sabah. This is to avoid misinformation of the type that happened ago two days ago. When shooting erupted in Sabah, Philippine authorities said that there were only 2 casualties, while the sultanate of Sulu claimed that there were 14. Malaysian officials, on the other hand,  claimed that 14 followers of the Sultanate managed to escape.

It s in times of crisis that the freedom of the press should be fully protected. Independent of the issue of who has title over Sabah, both the Malaysian and the Philippine public have a right to know what has been happening in the stand-off. Certainly, the death count, as well as the manner by which the human rights of the supporters of the Sultanate of Sulu are legitimate issues imbued with public interest.

The Philippines and Malaysian authorities have been at a standoff when 200 or so supporters of the Sultanate of Sulu went to Sabah purportedly to claim the island back on behalf of their sultanate. In 1878, the Sultanate of Sulu entered into a contract of “pajak” with Overbeck and Dent, the latter as representatives of the North Borneo Trading Company. Malaysians have construed “pajak” to mean cession. The Philippines claim it is a “lease”. Since 1878, Malaysia authorities have been paying to the sultanate the equivalent of 5000 ringgit annually.

Lord Granville, a Foreign Secretary for Great Britain maintained that the UK did not claim sovereignty over Sabah since the North Borneo Trading Company was not an instrumentality of Great Britain. Furthermore, Mr., Treacher, a British consular official who accompanied Overbeck and Dent to Sulu for the signing of the contract of “pajak” claimed that what was signed was a contract of lease.

Both the Philippines and Malaysia are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Art 19 of the same recognizes the duties of state parties thereto to protect and promote freedom of expression and of the press.

Malaysian state police recently detained an Al Jazeera team, including its Filipina producer, Jam Aindogan, for covering the standoff. Henry Omaga Diaz of Abs-Cbn news and Maki Pulido of GMA-7 were also asked to leave the area and was threatened by Malaysian authorities with arrest.

The Media Defense Southeast Asia is a regional organization of lawyers defending freedom of expression in Southeast Asia. It unequivocally condemns Malaysia’s utter disregard and violation of freedom of the press in Sabah.

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