Accountability
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - June 18, 2020 - 12:00am

There is too much spinning going on, and all on thin ice.

When Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montessa found Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos guilty of cyber libel, the spin machine kicked into full gear. The decision was denounced as an attack on press freedom.

The expensive public relations firm retained in the US to help project Ressa as a crusading journalist persecuted by the Duterte government was quite effective in slanting what happened as another instance of stifling journalists. In a matter of hours, statements from all the self-appointed guardians of democratic rights poured in. Rights advocates, politicians and all the usual suspects put out angry political statements denouncing the “regime.”

The whining is excessive. I wrote columns during the period of dictatorship. Whining about press freedom was futile. We simply summoned our courage to write and fight the tactical battles necessary to prevail over censorship. When the dreaded National Intelligence Board summoned editors and columnists to appear before it, we took the Board to the Supreme Court and actually won.

In this episode involving Ressa and Santos, however, the facts of the case are snowed under. The judicial ruling was pictured as being part of an orchestrated effort to silence the press. A conspiracy theory of sorts is being peddled.

The spin machine conveniently forgets to mention the basic facts of this case.

A private person maligned by the Rappler article in question filed this case simply seeking to clear his name. The man is in no way politically connected.

Wilfredo Keng was described in that article as a shady character engaged in drug dealing, human trafficking and cigarette smuggling. The article was written as part of the smear campaign against former Chief Justice Renato Corona who was being impeached by the government of Noynoy Aquino. The piece claims Keng lent Corona a vehicle. The businessman had to be depicted as sleazy or there would be no story worth printing.

Keng asked Rappler to correct that description. They never did.

In the course of the trial, Keng’s lawyers presented certifications from law enforcement agencies attesting there was no derogatory information against the businessman. Ressa’s lawyers did not offer evidence to support their claim. The judge ruled on the basis of evidence presented. That is how courts work.

All other issues mentioned by the spin machine, such as the length of the prescription period for cyber libel, may be important but secondary. The main point was that there was malice against Keng and the defendants failed to prove otherwise.

The victim of unfair characterization had to have justice. Journalists who trample on the rights of private individuals must also be accountable when they err.

Keng’s lawyers, after the ruling was handed down, reiterated that this was not a press freedom issue but a case of injury to a private person. The facts of the case support that.

Hardening

While everyone grapples with the pandemic, tensions have suddenly flared up in the Korean peninsula.

The other day, in a most bizarre exercise, the North Koreans blew up a building on their side of the border. The building was used as liaison office for improving ties between the two Koreas.

Before that, the North Koreans cut the hotline that enabled the leaders of the two countries to quickly communicate in the event of a crisis. Then, they announced they would be moving more army units closer to the border area.

The rapid rise in tensions between the two Koreas puzzled most analysts.

Pyongyang had shown irritation over the continuing trickle of propaganda coming in from the South. But the propaganda, undertaken by defectors who had fled south, consists mainly of balloon flown over the border carrying messages. The effort is both crude and limited.

Over the past few days, Pyongyang condemned the government of South Korea for being a “flunkey” of the US for not complying with the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration. This agreement was intended to gradually bring down military tensions through a series of confidence-building measures.

The South Korean unification minister Kim Yeon-chul has offered to resign because of the recent escalation of tensions. That offer, however, helps us little in understanding what caused the North’s sudden temperamental behavior.

It is rather interesting that Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, spoke about the demolition of that liaison building a few days ago. She likewise made the announcement that additional troops will be moved to the border. These announcements seem to be signaling the rising political role played by the leader’s younger sister.

When there was speculation about Kim Jong-un’s health several weeks ago, there was worldwide discussion about who could possibly succeed him. The name of Kim Yo-jong was most frequently mentioned.

Pyongyang’s strange behavior the past few days could indicate something is afoot in the domestic politics of the Hermit Kingdom. It is always difficult to analyze the internal politics of North Korea’s highly secretive regime.

Unless we are able to know what is afoot in the internal politics of the North, the rest of the world can only stand mystified at this latest tantrum being thrown by Pyongyang. If the aggressive initiatives and angry rhetoric continues to escalate, there could be unhealthy consequences for the peace of the region.

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