PCOO officials' Europe trip a âdesperate PR stuntâ â rights group
This file photo shows Presidential Communications chief Martin Andanar speaking before the Malacanang Press Corps.
PPD, File
PCOO officials' Europe trip a ‘desperate PR stunt’ — rights group
Gaea Katreena Cabico, Kristine Joy Patag (Philstar.com) - February 19, 2019 - 5:07pm

MANILA, Philippines — Sending Presidential Communications staff to Europe to "clarify" issues surrounding the Philippines is a junket and a bid to salvage the government's rights record, a human rights group said Tuesday.

PCOO Secretary Martin Andanar on Monday said officials of his agency were sent to Europe to clarify issues confronting the government such as involuntary disappearances and anti-communist terrorist groups.

The same officials are also part of a "press freedom caravan" to air the government's side in the arrest of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa on a cyber libel case.

But for Karapatan, the government officials are on a “mission for damage control.”

RELATED: UN panel to look into 'desaparecidos' from Makoy to Noynoy

“Instead of resolving these cases and adopting a human rights based approach in its policies, the Duterte government is instead wasting taxpayers’ money on these junkets to deodorize the stench of this government’s human rights records. These efforts are superficial,” Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general, said.

She added: “Victims are instead branded as terrorists and mechanism to safeguard people’s rights pushed forward mainly by the efforts of civil society are being co-opted and twisted in this government’s desperate PR stunt.”

'All part of PCOO's mandate'

Andanar claimed that no public funds were wasted in the office’s information drive in Europe after two senators questioned the intent and funding of the trip.

“All engagements in Bosnia, Brussels and Geneva are all part of PCOO’s mandate to deliver and disseminate information relation to policies, programs and achievements of the president and executive branch,” the PCOO chief said.

He added that the office found the mission an “opportune time” to hold a press freedom caravan in Brussels, Belgium and Geneva, Switzerland.

Earlier, Andanar said officials of his agency would meet journalists in Belgium, Bosnia and Switzerland to tackle media-related issues such as Ressa's arrest.

“The arrest of Ms. Maria Ressa happened two days after the official delegation left for Europe. Nobody from the delegation was aware it was coming. In any case, it is just natural for me to instruct the PCOO officials in Europe to answer possible queries about Ms. Ressa,” he said.

PTFoMs: Ressa case based on bizman's complaint

The Presidential Task Force on Media Security has played down Ressa's arrest, saying "not a few journalists have faced, or are facing, libel charges for articles they have written and caused to be published. And they go through the process of getting arrested, posting bail, and going to trial without fanfare and in many cases, without adequate legal assistance."

It has also said that concerns that the government is trying to muzzle Ressa-led online website Rappler are unfounded since the case stems from a complaint filed by a citizen, businessman Wilfredo Keng. “This resort to the judicial process is well within Keng’s right to prosecute his claim,” the task force said Monday.

However, it was a team of government prosecutors that brought the cyberlibel case against Rappler, Ressa and former Rappler writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. to a Manila court.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra explained that city prosecutors will be in charge of the cyber libel case in the proceedings at the Manila court. They will be assisted by state prosecutors if needed.

"The private offended party is normally represented by his own counsel to prosecute any civil liability arising from the criminal offense," Guevarra added in a text message.

The Manila court handling the case declined to divulge information on whether Keng has sent a lawyer to handle the civil aspect of the libel case, saying the documents woudl be with Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Presiding Judge Rainela Estacio-Montesa.

According to the Rules on Criminal Procedure: “All criminal actions commenced by a complaint or information shall be prosecuted under the direction and control of the prosecutor.”

Ressa and Santos are out on bail after posting P100,000 each but are due to be arraigned on March 8 in the case now docketed as People of the Philippines vs. Reynaldo Santos Jr., Maria Angelita Ressa and Rappler Inc.

In its statement, which echoes an earlier one by Andanar, PTFoMs said “the impulsive conclusion that the non-exemption of Ms. Ressa from the judicial process constitutes a blanket attack on press freedom in the Philippines is a blatant disregard for the earnest efforts of the very stakeholders to come up with programs aimed at safeguarding it.”

RELATED: Panelo: Ressa’s arrest ‘nothing to do with freedom of expression’ | National Press Club: Ressa arrest 'smacks of bad taste,' but not harassment

It added that it has always believed "that the mere performance of duties of journalists already exposes them to serious risks such as threats, actual physical attack, indictment for libel and other criminal offenses."


Military, intel officers on trips abroad

The Karapatan secretary general also questioned the attendance of military and intelligence officers in delegations abroad.

“Our attention has been called regarding the conduct of military and intelligence officers who make rounds in diplomatic missions to red-tag specific organizations and dissuade them from providing resources that go into the campaigns and initiatives of said groups,” Palabay claimed.

She said the move puts at risk the efforts of human rights defenders and various organizations.

“Years of hard work and concrete actions to respond to these specific needs are being maligned and in danger of being overturned. Their operation is gradual and surreptitious, but altogether perilous to the movement, capacity, and spaces being maximized by civil society,” Palabay said.

During a meeting with United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Voluntary Disappearances, the Philippine delegation formally moved to delist 625 cases of enforced and involuntary disappearances—a move seen to “erase the narratives of desaparecidos.”

Armed Forces of the Philippines deputy chief of staff for operations Brig. Gen Antonio Parlade, who is part of the delegation, claimed that many of the cases took place at the height of the internal purging by the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army.

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