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UNESCO FIASCO: Travesty of justice for Ampatuan massacre victims

By Atty. Perry L. Solis Jr.

ACCORDING to a recent Reuter’s headline, “too much politics leaves UNESCO fighting for life.” Indeed, there is much to be desired about the recent actions of the once esteemed United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO).

UNESCO is a by-product of the devastation caused by the Second World War, conceived in 1945 to promote world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture.

Today, the international body is run by dilettantes preoccupied with too much politicking and pettifogging over frivolous matters, vexing even the mighty United States of America. 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”.

Reports said 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.

Upon leaving UNESCO, the Prime Minister of Israel even remarked that “We hope that the organization will change its ways but we are not pinning hopes on this.”

What happened to UNESCO?  Is it a lost cause?  Many nations now question the point of the existence of the international body.

Even our beloved nation has not been spared by too much politics in UNESCO. A case in point is the Ampatuan Massacre that happened more than a decade ago on November 23, 2009.

In Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information Moez Chakchouk’s official letter dated 31 July 2020 to Philippines Ambassador Theresa Lazaro (Ref.: CI/FEJ/2020/379), he 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”.

Flip-flop

In a complete turnaround from the earlier pronouncement of UNESCO, here came Deputy Director-General Xing Qu, who decided to maintain the classification of the massacre case as still “on-going/unresolved”, apparently upon the prodding of some groups that misrepresented themselves for the victims.

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 “on-going/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 final verdict is reached by the Philippine Judicial System”.

Such obvious flip-flopping did not go unnoticed.

Very recently, the real families and colleagues of the victims expressed shock over the sudden turnaround and urged UNESCO to remain true to its word on its earlier commitment to classifying the case as resolved.

“We, the concerned families of local journalists killed in the infamous Maguindanao massacre on November 23, 2009, and local media organizations in Central Mindanao, Philippines hereby appeal to the Honourable Xing Qu, Deputy Director-General, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information to reconsider the classification of the Maguindanao massacre case as unresolved despite the guilty verdict handed down by the Regional Trial Court against the principal accused and cohorts in the case on December 19, 2019, after a decade of grueling judicial trial,” the HEIRS of 11/23 Heroes, Soccsksargen Press Club. Police Regional Office-12 Press Corps, Sultan Kudarat Provincial Police Press Corps, South Cotabato Police Press Corps, General Santos City Police Office Press Corps, and Sultan Kudarat Tri-Media Association said in an official statement.

During the 11th anniversary of the incident, the Manila Bulletin reported that Elliver Cablitas, husband of reporter Maritess Cablitas who was killed in the massacre,  and president of Heirs of 11/23 Heroes, said their group was wary of the petition filed by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) that asked UNESCO to declare the Maguindanao massacre case as unresolved despite the conviction of masterminds Andal Ampatuan Jr. and his brother Zaldy Ampatuan, former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), as it might jeopardize the resolution of the case based on the court decision.

Cablitas added that NUJP’s petition might jeopardize the victims’ claims for civil damages which the court ordered the convicted accused to pay for each family, ranging from P350,000 to P2.5 million.

The families and colleagues of the victims pointed out that UNESCO failed to consider their stance as they “were not consulted and unaware about the petition” submitted by NUJP to UNESCO.

Disdain

Why did Xing Qu take the questioned appeal by these unscrupulous groups hook, line, and sinker? Why did he ignore the sentiments of the real families and friends of the victims? Whose sentiment are Xing Qu and his favored friends actually espousing? The accused?

Even the National Press Club of the Philippines (NPC), the country’s largest organization of active journalists, was “utterly dismayed” over UNESCO’s flip-flopping.

In its “Manifesto” addressed to the UN body, the NPC explained that UNESCO’s earlier pronouncement of promising to categorize the case as “resolved” “was met with wide acclaim and acceptance not only by the legitimate Philippine media organizations such as the NPC and all its affiliates but more so, by the victims’ families.”

The NPC expressed grave concern that UNESCO is allowing itself to be used unwittingly by a handful of misguided groups in the country to promote their own selfish interests instead of that of the victims’ families.  According to the NPC, “NUJP’s petition is aimed at further aggravating the injustice they have suffered as it actually favors the Ampatuans who can now use it as further basis NOT to pay the compensations obligated to them by the court.”

The NPC said that “all of us deemed it necessary to come out now in order to stop the vicious machination” by some organizations “in exploiting the issue of human rights violations in the Philippines in general and, the Ampatuan Massacre in particular, for their political, ideological and financial gains.”

The NPC’s affiliate press organizations include the Manila Police District Press Corps, Manila City Hall Press Club, Quezon City Police District Press Corps, Quezon City Press Club, Inc., Eastern Police District Press Corps, National Capital Region Police Office Press Club, DILG Press Corps, Press Photographers of the Philippines. Camp Vicente Lim Press Corps (Calabarzon Region), Camp Paciano Rizal Press Corps, Bulacan Press Club (Bulacan Province), Nueva Ecija Press Club, 7-Lakes Press Corps, Sockssargen Press Club (General Santos City) and NPC Mindanao:

The NPC further claimed that the NUJP refused to provide any accounting for all donations it received, solicited, and collected on behalf of the victims’ families.  Unlike the NUJP, the NPC pointed out that the official audit of all funds relating to the Club’s assistance to the victims, together with all supporting documents, is publicly available.

It is important to stress that UNESCO’s initial commitment to classifying the Maguindanao Massacre as already resolved is grounded upon the guilty verdict handed down in the case by a Philippine court in 2019.

On December 19, 2019, Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes convicted Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr and Zaldy Ampatuan, the masterminds of the heinous crime, of 57 counts of murder and sentenced them to reclusion perpetua without the possibility of parole. 28 other co-accused including police officers were also convicted of 57 counts of murder and sentenced to 40 years, while 15 other accused were sentenced to 6–10 years for being accessories to the crime.

This was a monumental victory not only for the victims but for the entire Philippine nation. While lawyers from both sides assumed the case will take “a hundred years” to finish owing to the vast number of victims and suspects, the guilty verdict was finally handed down in 2019 due to the proactive support given by the government.

With such landmark decision and the continuing commitment of the government to bring to justice perpetrators of threats and violence against media workers through a dedicated agency such as the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS), the Philippines remains steadfast in its quest to preserve press freedom.

In a press statement, PTFoMS Executive Director Undersecretary Joel Sy Egco stated that the county can now proudly proclaim to the world that any violence against media workers will never go unpunished and the so-called culture of impunity has come to an end.

Through the PTFoMS, the Philippines is perhaps the only country in the world with a comprehensive program for safeguarding press freedom and protecting media workers, and as long as the program exists, will continuously ensure the investigation and prosecution of all cases of media violence.

CPJ’s bias

Unfortunately, it seems that even the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) does not share the sentiments of the families and colleagues of the victims of the massacre.

In a faulty “analysis” written by  Shawn W. Crispin, Senior Southeast Asia Representative, the CPJ echoed the view of the NUJP who led the petition at UNESCO to maintain the unresolved status of the massacre.

Unwittingly acting as NUJP’s mouthpiece without actually knowing all the facts on the ground, the CPJ said that the government through PTFoMS’ chief Egco was “too quick” to echo UNESCO’s earlier pronouncement.

According to Crispin, “Far from it: All of the convicted Ampatuan clan members, including the crime’s reputed masterminds Andal Ampatuan Jr. and Zaldy Ampatuan, have appealed their convictions. Those legal challenges, local observers predict, could take years to be heard and eventually reach the Supreme Court, if the defendants exercise all of their appeal options.”

Crispin described the country’s legal system as “labyrinthine and politicized.”

Contrary to Crispin’s bare claims, the Philippines’ justice system is not much different from any other system existing in the democratic world.  While it is true that the justice system in the Philippines remains slow due, in part, to the huge disparity between the number of judges vis-a-vis the number of cases pending in court, it is far less “labyrinthine” than the systems used in other countries such as in the United States where CPJ is based which has a jury system in place.

The CPJ should do more investigation than making false analyses without any basis.

The Philippine justice system involves the usual process of presenting evidence through trial culminating in a decision by a judge. While appeals may be availed of by any party, it is not part of due process (Turks vs Pajaron, G.R. No. 207156, January 16, 2017). If an accused in a criminal case is not granted bail during the trial, once convicted, he or she remains in jail during the entire process of the appeal.

Unesco’s “flip-flopping” is actually a huge travesty, undermining the country’s sovereign laws. The competent court had heard the testimonies of hundreds of witnesses for either side, tried the accused, and finally rendered the guilty verdict. Appeals do not require similar presentations of evidence and witnesses. In fact, appeals are just a “paper war” between the accused and the lower court that convicted them. Any action contrary to the decision of the lower court, such as in this case the Unesco’s ill-conceived turnaround, is perceived to be favoring the accused.

Biggest mover

Be that as it may, Egco was actually correct in saying that the Philippines’ rank in CPJ’s Impunity Index would “dramatically improve” as stated in Crispin’s write up.  As it turned out, the Philippines was declared by CPJ as the “biggest mover” in the world in the index as reported by Elana Beiser, CPJ’s Editorial Director.

It should be noted that the Philippines is not included in CPJ’s list of “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist” which includes China and war-torn 1raq to name a few.   Moreover, the Philippines is not part of CPJ’s “10 Most Censored Countries”, which, unsurprisingly, includes communist China, as well as North Korea, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia.

Legally speaking, UNESCO should have maintained its original position to classify the case as resolved.

Pursuant to UNESCO’s “Mandate of the Director-General and methodology” on the matter, it is beyond doubt that the Maguindanao Massacre is already “resolved” and not as still “ongoing/unresolved”.  There is no escaping this conclusion.  As stated therein,

The information in this report on the status of the investigations carried out on each of the killings condemned by the Director-General is based solely on the updates provided by concerned Member States.

The cases of killings of journalists are systematically condemned by Director-General of UNESCO through press releases. General Conference 29 C/Resolution 29 (1997) mandates the Director-General to “condemn the assassination and any physical violence against journalists as a crime against society, since this curtails freedom of expression and, as a consequence, the other rights and freedoms set forth in international human rights instruments”. This mandate has been reinforced by other resolutions, such as General Conference 36 C/Resolution 53 (2011), which calls on UNESCO to monitor the status of press freedom and safety of journalists in coordination with other UN bodies.

The information provided by the Member States has been analyzed for the purpose of this study and categorized as follows:

  1. “Resolved”

The status of a case regarding the killing of a journalist is considered as “Resolved” if the Member State has provided one or more of the following responses to the Director-General’s request to provide information concerning the status of the investigation

a. The perpetrator(s) of the crime has (/have) been brought to justice and been convicted by a court of law.

b. The suspected perpetrator(s) of the crime died before a court case could take place or be completed.

c. The judicial process has revealed that the death was not related to the victim’s journalistic practice. The Director-General no longer requests status updates once a case is deemed to have been resolved.

  1. “Ongoing/Unresolved”

The status of a case regarding the killing of a journalist is considered as “Ongoing/Unresolved” if the Member State has provided one of the following responses to the Director-General’s request to provide information concerning the status of the investigation:

 a. The case is currently being investigated by law enforcement agencies or other relevant authorities.

b. The case has been taken up by the judicial system but a final verdict has not yet been reached and the suspect(s) has (/have) not been convicted and sentenced. The “Ongoing/Unresolved” category also applies to cases where only one of the suspected killers has been convicted and sentenced.

c. The journalist has been reported by the Member State as having been killed by foreign actors beyond national jurisdiction.

d. A court of law has acquitted the suspected perpetrator(s) of the crime (for example due to lack of or tampered evidence).

e. A court of law has ruled to archive the case or is otherwise unable to be processed through the judiciary system (for example, due to statutes of limitations). This category therefore also includes those cases for which a judicial process has been completed, but where no person(s) has (/have) yet been successfully held accountable in terms of due legal process, and hence where impunity in regard to the killing(s) still remains unresolved.

Absoluta sententia expositore non indiget. The plain meaning of UNESCO’s rules are clear and needs no interpretation.  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.”

It is well worth noting that aside from official correspondences and reports informing the Honorable Body of the guilty verdict given to the masterminds, principals, and their accomplices of the massacre by a Philippine “court of law” of competent jurisdiction, an actual copy of the court’s decision was even personally handed to the United Nations by Philippine officials earlier this year.

Bending the rules

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 “Mandate of the Director-General and methodology” that says anything about the filing of an appeal being able to preclude the classification as “resolved” the cases of killings of journalists which resulted in convictions.

In this regard, are there any “secret” or “confidential” rule or policy which UNESCO is implementing on this particular case that has been withheld to the Philippines or which the country has not yet been made aware of?

If that is the case, UNESCO should walk the talk, so to speak, and be transparent in all its dealings by honoring its commitment to freedom of information as recognized by Article 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, and by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), made obligatory under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and fully apprise the Philippine government on the real reason for UNESCO’s flip-flopping on the matter.

In all, Xing Qu’s kowtowing to the noise created by a handful of individuals is highly improper, counterproductive, and ill-conceived. Whether or not “appeals have been launched” is of no moment.  Quite simply, UNESCO’s flip-flopping through Qu is wrong.

Instead of helping the victims, the Qu’s action might actually jeopardize the decision convicting the masterminds of the massacre and the compensation awarded to the victims.

Is this what the US meant that UNESCO has “politicized virtually every subject it deals with” when it left the organization?  For the victim’s sake, UNESCO must not politicize the issue and instead approach it factually and based on the rule of law.

In any event, the actual families, friends, and colleagues of the victims have welcomed the 2019 conviction with relief as finally bringing closure to their quest for justice.

As aptly pointed out by the Mindanao Independent Press Council (MIPC):

After initially classifying the Ampatuan Massacre that killed 32 journalists and media workers in 2009 as “resolved,” the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says it will now reclassify the horrific incident as “ongoing/unresolved.” This came after a group of petitioners wrote to UNESCO early this month to voice its opposition, pointing out that existing appeals have been filed in higher courts against the December 2019 verdict that found two Ampatuan brothers guilty. At least 28 co-accused were also found guilty of murder while 15 others were convicted for being accessories to the crime.

It appears that based on the foregoing, a semantics conundrum threatens to diminish–if not, cast doubt– on the legal victory achieved by the families of the victims, backed by broad-based organizations that helped bring the perpetrators to justice after 10 long years.

Lest we forget, the verdict handed down by Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes sentenced the principal convicted criminals to reclusion perpetual, without the possibility of parole. Following the verdict, UNESCO itself said the court’s decision reflects the country’s justice system that is working to protect the freedom of the press.

The same justice system, however, allows convicted persons to seek relief to overturn their sentences.

The appeals filed by the massacre convicts barely a month following the court’s decision, however, must not in any way misconstrue the legal resolution. As the sole trier of facts, the regional trial court’s decision was in itself thorough, methodical, and exhaustive in laying the facts and the truth of the case “beyond reasonable doubt.”

An appeal is a mere formality that we believe will not pass muster in any appellate court, and to say that this case has not attained any semblance of resolution is to deny the verdict as well as diminish the gargantuan efforts of the victims’ families and their advocates in seeing this case come to its most desired outcome–justice.

For sure, we can argue on what constitutes a “resolved” case, but we must acknowledge the legal victory here if only to honor the witnesses, the victims’ families, and the brave souls who made this outcome a reality. Only then can we move on and together, close this sad chapter in our democracy by defeating the appeals made by the convicted persons in this case.

Actions speak louder than words. The government remains true in its quest to promote, protect and preserve press freedom through various programs such as the creation of PTFoMS by virtue of Administrative Order No. 1 enacted by President Rodrigo Duterte upon assumption of office in 2016, an agency exclusively devoted to providing a safe environment to journalists; the enactment of Executive Order No. 2 by President Duterte in 2016, operationalizing the Freedom of Information (FOI) Program in the Executive branch pursuant to the people’s constitutional right to information; and the signing into law Republic Act No. 114581 in 2019 by President Duterte which expanded the coverage of the shield law to broadcasters and online journalists.

Moreover, there are several laws pending in Congress that seek to ensure the economic security of journalists, foremost of which is the Media Workers Welfare Act under House Bill No. 2476 which PTFoMS has been actively advocating for its passage in Congress.

These are just a few of the concrete steps taken by the government to safeguard freedom of expression and of the press in the Philippines.  The government truly believes that the responsible exercise of these freedoms constitutes a fundamental pillar for strengthening the nation’s democracy.

The present government should not be held hostage by the ghosts of past mistakes as it has proven time and again of its unwavering commitment to protecting the life, liberty, and security of journalists.

Let us not let the noises caused by a few misguided individuals with ulterior motives continue to besmirch the reputation of a nation of more than a hundred million freedom-loving Filipinos.

In the broader interest of justice, it is high time for UNESCO to categorically classify the Maguindanao Massacre as finally and officially  “resolved”.

(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.) (PNA)

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