Atty. Perry L. Solis, Jr.
AS a former member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) jury that gives away the award from 2016 and its president in 2018, it comes as no surprise that Fil-American Maria Ressa has been chosen as this year’s winner of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize.
Also known as the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, the award supposedly honors “a person, organization or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the defense and, or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, and especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger.” The winner receives a diploma and a monetary prize of USD25,000.00, equivalent to around P1,205,995.00 Philippine peso.
This year’s UNESCO awardee in the person of the Fil-American Ressa – a staunch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte – was not at all unexpected. She was a member of the award-giving body since 2016. In fact, she was the President of the UNESCO jury in 2018.
If she has any delicadeza like a Filipino, she should refuse the award or at the very least, donate the money to a community pantry if she really cares about our people.
According to Marilu Mastrogiovanni, an Italian journalist who presided over this year’s jury, “Maria Ressa’s unerring fight for freedom of expression is an example for many journalists around the world. Her case is emblematic of global trends that represent a real threat to press freedom and therefore to democracy.”
We respectfully beg to disagree with such an overly dramatic description of her work. Ressa’s dubitable award comes at the cost of depicting our beloved nation as a war-torn country, which is of course completely untrue. Many foreigners are afraid to visit our nation because of the “unerring” lies being peddled by the likes of Ressa,
'Worse than any warzone'
In her interview with the TV show “60 minutes”, Ressa painted the country as "worse than any war zone" she's been in, and that she has been living in “this kind of hell” for many years now.
Why does she depict our beautiful nation in such a degrading manner is anyone’s guess. Is she part of the opposition? Is it because she is an American? Is it because she was a former news manager at ABS CBN?
For conferring her the award, UNESCO is either misinformed, Ill-informed, or simply Ignorant of the facts on the ground.
Ressa is not the victim. She has become an expert in portraying herself to her audience as a brave and crusading journalist at the expense of every Filipino. As a journalist, she is a naysayer who made herself the center of the story. And UNESCO unwittingly becomes another one of her mouthpieces. She does not and should not be regarded as some kind of heroine of press freedom as UNESCO describes her to be.
To put it in context, Ressa portrays press freedom in the Philippines under President Duterte as something that is endangered, and she is at the tip of the sphere in the battle to regain it -- the American savior of press freedom in the Philippines. However, unbiased data tell otherwise.
This year's World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) unerringly shows that the Philippine media under President Duterte remains freer and better than during past administrations.
Despite a slight 2-point drop in the index, RSF’s Index revealed that the country’s rankings for the past five years remained better than during the term of former President Noynoy Aquino.
RSF’s index showed that President Duterte got an average of 133.6 points counted from 2017 to 2021 with the lowest at 138 points, compared that during the presidency of Aquino which averaged 142.5 points in his entire term, reckoned from 2011 to 2016, with his highest at 138 points.
President Duterte's lowest “grade” in the Index, so to speak, is Aquino's highest. This categorically proves that press freedom in the Philippines is in a far better and freer situation under President Duterte than during the presidency of Aquino based on the World Press Freedom Index.
The slight two-point dip from 136 to 138 should be viewed in light of the notable declines in 73% of all countries in the world due to the onslaught of the Covid19 pandemic.
Other unbiased data that proves press freedom in the country is in a much better state than previous administrations are as follows:
President Duterte motu propio created the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS) upon his assumption in office in 2016, an inter-agency task force with the goal of protecting the life, liberty, and security of every media worker in the country – the very first in the world.
By 2018, the country was removed from RSF’s infamous list of most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.
In 2019, through the immense support of this administration, Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes convicted Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr and Zaldy Ampatuan, the masterminds of the Ampatuan Massacre, of several counts of murder along with several other co-accused,
By 2020, the country was declared as the “biggest mover” in the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Global Impunity Index. According to CPJ, the Philippines is the most improved country in last year’s rankings, improving from the fifth worldwide to seventh.
The Philippines is also not included in CPJ’s list of “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist” or “10 Most Censored Countries”.
Give credit to the deserving
Should we give Ressa some credit for her work?
Ressa’s portrayal of an extremely negative image of the Philippines comes at a cost to ordinary Filipino citizens. This UNESCO award is not good news. It will only continue to inculcate in the minds of foreigners of Ressa’s claims that the Philippines is a lawless state that should be avoided at all costs, hurting in the process our fledgling tourism industry and the jobs of thousands of ordinary citizens that directly relies on it.
While we may agree that Ressa’s work has made an impact in the world of journalism, that impact should be viewed in a different light. Painting the country constantly in an excessively negative manner in the guise of press freedom only serves to promote the Ressa brand and her company, Rappler.
If at all, she is detrimental to the real work of journalists around the world who strive for facts, not news riddled with slants and anti-government rhetoric which is how news reporting in Rappler has devolved.
For giving her this award, UNESCO should be held complicit for Ressa’s biased storytelling which has only undermined the country.
Freedom or license?
The Task Force firmly believes that the responsible exercise of the freedoms of expression, opinion, and of the press is the true foundation of any democratic society.
One of the reasons why Ressa was selected for the award was allegedly due to her being “arrested for alleged crimes related to the exercise of her profession, and has been subject to a sustained campaign of gendered online abuse, threats, and harassment.”
Man, woman, black, brown, yellow, white, or something else, many have suffered from online abuse anywhere in the world because of the perceived anonymity that social media has provided. This is how the world has evolved with the rise of social media. Whether you are “pro” or “anti” any government, any statement or information you sent out on the internet has become fair game for all. Has this kind of scenario made press freedom stronger?
Be that as it may, as a fierce critic of the administration, Ressa should not be too onion-skinned.
Our very own Undersecretary Joel Sy Egco, Executive Director of PTFoMS, has been subjected to numerous libel charges while working as a journalist and as Director and later on, President of the National Press Club, and other charges while head of the agency, all of which have been dismissed. But unlike Ressa, you don’t see Egco sounding the alarm; whining or crying harassment or attack on press freedom; or telling the world that his right to freedom of expression was violated by the government.
Ressa has been quite good at portraying all branches of the government including the judiciary as some kind of puppet of the “authoritarian” and “brutal” regime, The reality is there is no state-sponsored machinery out to get her. It's all an illusion created by Ressa herself. Even our courts, while slow, are very independent.
Just read the decision of the court in the libel case of Ressa and you might actually agree that she is guilty of libel and lazy journalism.T ake note: it is not okay for any reporter to accuse a person of being engaged in human trafficking and illegal drugs without basis and without giving the person the chance to explain his side.
But in all of the western media’s coverage of Ressa’s libel case, there is usually no mention of who the complainant was and what brought about the charges against her. They chose to ignore such facts and believed Ressa’s vague claims that the charge was the government’s way of intimidating her to silence.
This begs the question, should libel be decriminalized in the Philippines for press freedom’s sake? A global survey shows that more than half of the European countries and about half of the American states still consider libel as a criminal offense.
Would it be better to just make those who commit libel civilly liable? Bankrupting a journalist into silence and submission may be more palatable to some dilettante’s mind.
At any rate, Ressa should have come with clean hands. She cannot accuse the government of abusing its power while at the same time abusing the power of journalism herself by making libelous remarks against private citizens. She should not accuse the Duterte administration of violating human rights while she herself violates the laws of this country, forcing the government to file tax fraud charges against her.
The fact remains that Ms. Ressa is out and about, freely and fiercely criticizing the Duterte administration in interviews in the Philippines and around the world and through Rappler, is a good indicator of the state of freedoms in the country.
Wag the dog
There is much to be desired about the recent actions of the once esteemed international body.
In 1984, the US withdrew from UNESCO, accusing it of “extraneously politicizing virtually every subject it deals with" and “exhibiting hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society” and a “free press”. The US rejoined in 2003, only to withdraw again on December 31, 2018. Israel followed suit on January 1, 2019, describing the organization as “corrupted and manipulated”.
One insider has revealed that UNESCO was once all about solidarity and creating a climate to foster peace between states. Now, countries use their dues to influence UNESCO’s agenda.
While much attention has been made by UNESCO on the state of press freedom in countries around the world, the international body seems to be strangely quiet about one country whose government has absolute control over its media: China.
Since the voluntary withdrawal of the United States from UNESCO, China has become the biggest funder of the body, accounting for at least15% percent of its annual regular budget. It is no wonder that Chinese diplomats now head some of the coveted positions in UNESCO. It is just a matter of time that a Chinese becomes the Director-General of the international body.
It would have been more appropriate than the award was given to any of the unknown Chinese or Hong Kong journalists who actually have been harassed or jailed for speaking against the administration.
But will UNESCO bite the hand that feeds it?
Indeed, it has become a case of “wag the dog” in UNESCO. By focusing on other countries’ supposed deficiencies in safeguarding press freedom, attention to China’s utter lack thereof is minimized.
Even our nation has not been spared by too much politics in UNESCO. A case in point is John Michael Decano, a beautician and massage therapist, who was killed by his boyfriend. Without verifying the facts on the ground and believing the unfounded claims of some critics of the government, he was mistaken for a journalist by UNESCO and included in the Observatory of Killed Journalists.
Another is the Ampatuan Massacre that happened more than a decade ago on November 23, 2009. As stated earlier, the masterminds and their cohorts of the gruesome massacre were finally convicted by the court in 2019 for multiple counts of murder.
As a result, thereof, Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information Moez Chakchouk, in his official letter to the Philippines dated 31 July 2020 (Ref.: CI/FEJ/2020/379), confirmed that UNESCO will be officially classifying the Maguindanao Massacre as “resolved”.
As stated in Mr. Chakchouk’s correspondence:
“As regards your request concerning the 30 cases of killings of journalists related to the “Maguindanao Massacre”, I am pleased to confirm that we will classify these as resolved, both in the UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists and in the 2020 Director-General Report on the Safety of Journalists”.
In a complete turnaround from the earlier pronouncement of UNESCO, here came Deputy Director-General Xing Qu of China who decided to maintain the classification of the case as still “ongoing/unresolved” upon the prodding of groups critical of the government.
In his letter dated September 24, 2020. Mr. Qu said:
“UNESCO learned in early September 2020 that, in this particular case, appeals have been launched. Based on this new information, the legal cases concerned will, therefore, be maintained as “ongoing/unresolved” in the UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists, as well as in the upcoming “Director General’s Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity” until such a moment when the final verdict is reached by the Philippine Judicial System”.
However, pursuant to UNESCO’s own rules on the matter, the “Mandate of the Director-General and methodology”, it is beyond doubt that the Ampatuan Massacre is already “resolved”. As stated therein, the “status of a case regarding the killing of a journalist is considered as “Resolved” if the Member State has provided” information that “The perpetrator(s) of the crime has (/have) been brought to justice and been convicted by a court of law.”
Accordingly, the appeal taken by any of the accused should not, in any way, affect the classification of the incident as truly “resolved”. More so since there is absolutely nothing in UNESCO’s rules that say anything about the filing of an appeal being able to prevent the classification as “resolved” the cases of killings of journalists that resulted in convictions.
And yet, UNESCO has remained adamant in classifying the case as still “unresolved”. Another sad example of politics trumping the rule of law in UNESCO.
(Atty. Solis comes from a family of journalists. He is presently the chief of staff of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security. He also teaches at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines College of Law.)