Senators question use of PCOO caravan in Europe to explain Maria Ressa arrest
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Why use a government information drive to defend the government's stance on Rappler CEO Maria Ressa's arrest?
Two lawmakers questioned the Press Freedom Caravan of the Presidential Communication Operations Office (PCOO) in Europe, which Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar had said would be used to explain Ressa's controversial arrest to European media.
"Why is the government suddenly interested in clearing its name before the international community on the arrest of Maria Ressa when before, it has ignored criticisms on extrajudicial killings as a result of the drug war?" asked Senator Francis Pangilinan on Monday, February 18.
"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? How much is the PCOO spending for this trip in taxpayers' money?" he added.
Andanar had said key officials from his agency are in Europe now and will use their time there to tell European media groups that Ressa's arrest over cyber libel charges is not an attack on Philippine press freedom. (READ: TIMELINE: Rappler's cyber libel case)
"Eh dinadala natin iyong Press Freedom Caravan para maintindihan nila, para maliwanagan sila sa kaso ni Maria Ressa," said Andanar on Saturday, February 16, during a Radyo Pilipinas interview.
(We are bringing this Press Freedom Caravan there so they will understand, so they will be enlightened about the case of Maria Ressa.)
He mentioned that PCOO Undersecretary Joel Sy Egco, Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, and Assistant Secretary Kris Ablan are in Europe for the caravan. They will be traveling to Brussels, Bosnia, and Switzerland for the campaign, he said.
One thing they will use the trip for is to "explain what really is the nature of Ms Ressa's case and why the Duterte administration has nothing to do with it," said Andanar in Filipino.
More appropriate uses for caravan
Senator Grace Poe also has her doubts about the use of the PCOO caravan.
"Is it really necessary to spend people's money on this? It is not enough that various officials have spoken about this issue? It's also with the courts already so let's just let the process unfold," she said in a Monday statement.
"It's more appropriate for PCOO to use these funds to spread information to encourage parents to have their children vaccinated or else to help in the information dissemination for an orderly and peaceful elections," she added.
Andanar emphasized on Monday that Ressa's arrest was only one of the possible topics the PCOO caravan would take up. He said the PCOO officials left for Europe days before Ressa's arrest.
"We didn't know much about the Ressa case when we prepared for this trip," he said in a statement.
He described the caravan as a "side event" to official meetings with "officials from the EU Parliament, Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, European Commission, and leaders of the Filipino community."
The government insists the cyber libel case is solely the initiative of a private individual, businessman Wilfredo Keng. President Rodrigo Duterte has said he does not know Keng personally.
However, it was the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), an agency under the government's Department of Justice, which recommended that Ressa be charged for cyber libel. The NBI flip-flopped after initially saying that Keng's complaint is past the one-year prescriptive period for libel.
Foreign governments like the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada released statements on Ressa's arrest. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said the arrest "appears to be the latest element in a pattern of intimidation."
International news groups and journalists have also condemned the threats to press freedom under Duterte's watch. (READ: Maria Ressa's arrest part of broader gov't campaign, say rights groups) – Rappler.com