PCOO in Europe to explain Maria Ressa's case

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Metro Manila (February 18, CNN Philippines) — The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) is currently in Europe for what it calls "Press Freedom Caravan" which includes explaining the case of Rappler chief executive officer and executive editor Maria Ressa to the European media.

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said in his radio show on state-run Radyo Pilipinas on Saturday that PCOO officials Kris Ablan, Joel Egco and Lorraine Badoy are in Brussels for the caravan.

"Ngayon nandoon din sila ngayon sa Brussels – Bosnia muna tapos Brussels, tapos Switzerland. So ito ay para naman kausapin iyong mga European media, for example marami silang tanong about the press freedom sa Pilipinas," Andanar said.

[Translation: They're now there in Brussels – Bosnia first, then Brussels, and then Switzerland. So this is to talk to the European media, for example, they have a lot of questions about press freedom in the Philippines.]

He added, "Ngayon ay nandoon si Usec. Joel Egco at nandoon si Asec. Kris Ablan, si Usec. Badoy para ipaliwanag kung ano talaga iyong nature ng kaso ni Ms. Ressa at kung bakit walang kinalaman ang Duterte administration dito dahil maliwanag naman na ito ay kaso between a private individual."

[Translation: Now, Undersecretary Joel Egco is there and Assistant Secretary Kris Ablan and Undersecretary Badoy is also there to explain what is the real nature of Ms. Ressa's case and why the Duterte administration has nothing to do with this because it is clear that this is a case between a private individual.]

In a statement on Monday, Andanar clarified he was only using Ressa's case as an example of what might be raised during the caravan, adding they did not know much about the Rappler chief's case when they prepared for the Europe trip.

Andanar said PCOO officials were sent to Europe as part of the government's official delegation to clarify issues including involuntary disappearances and the government's efforts against communist rebels.

"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.

He added the Press Freedom Caravan is a side event in between official meetings with European Union Parliament officials, the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the European Commission and leaders of the Filipino community.

Meanwhile, opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan said the government's resources should be used "judiciously."

"Why is the government suddenly interested in clearing its name before the international community on the arrest of Maria Ressa when before, when before it has ignored criticisms on extrajudicial killings as a result of the drug war?" Pangilinan said in a statement.

"Could it be that Secretary Andanar and the PCOO people just want a whiff of winter, thus, the sudden urge to go into this information caravan?" he added.

However, Andanar said no public funds were wasted in the trip which was in line with a directive from the National Security Council.

PCOO has been criticized over its officials' travels. The agency was questioned in the House on then Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson's trips with Duterte.

According to the Commission on Audit, the PCOO spent ₱162.32 million in 2017 in travels, with ₱119.96 million for local travels and ₱42.36 million for foreign travels.

In his radio show, Andanar said the Press Freedom Caravan had been to Bangkok, Pampanga, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Cavite, Dipolog, Dapitan, Cebu and Digos.

UN rights commissioner 'very concerned'

Local and foreign organizations slammed Ressa's arrest and her overnight detention at the National Bureau of Investigation's headquarters in Manila over a cyber libel case filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng, calling it an attack on press freedom.

But Andanar, a broadcaster before being appointed to the PCOO by President Rodrigo Duterte, said in his radio program that it is "disinformation" to claim that the administration is denying press freedom.

Andanar, who is also co-chair of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, insisted that Ressa's case is only between her and Keng, who sued over an article claiming he lent his vehicle to former Chief Justice Renato Corona and linked him to illegal drugs and other illegal activities.

He also shrugged off statements of media groups that Ressa's arrest will create a chilling effect among journalists.

READ: Philstar.com deletes 2002 article on Wilfredo Keng

However, UN High Commission for Human Rights Rupert Colville said attempts to "intimidate or muzzle" the press seriously affects freedom of opinion and expression.

"We are very concerned about the arrest on libel charges of Maria Ressa ... which appears to be the latest element in a pattern of intimidation of a media outlet that has fiercely guarded its independence and its right to conduct in-depth investigations and to criticize the authorities," Colville said in a statement.

The UN Human Rights Office has called for an independent and thorough review of all charges against Ressa and other media workers in the Philippines and urged the Philippine judiciary to throw out cases that are clearly politically motivated.

Colville is the latest UN official to speak out on Ressa's arrest, following UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard, and Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst.

But Andanar is not bothered by criticisms against Ressa's arrest, even calling libel "a badge of honor for every journalist and every broadcaster."