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Unas and the Philippine press’ abdication

If you applauded the arrest of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as a “triumph of justice,” yet you are puzzled by who, or even what, “Unas” is, then read on and find out how the press has abdicated its role and thereby helped in the travesty of justice.

Unas is one Norie Unas, whose allegation that Arroyo ordered cheating in the 2007 elections for her senatorial slate is the sole basis for her arrest. He claims he “overheard” the former president giving the order to his boss.

But Unas is hardly a Chavit Singson or a Clarissa Ocampo or any of the many credible witnesses whose testimonies resulted in the conviction of former President Estrada for plunder. Identified—and subliminally given credibility—by the mainstream press as a “former provincial administrator,” Unas is the right-hand man of warlord and former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., a prime suspect in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre of 58 souls. Unas has been alleged to be one of the planners of the atrocity, who deployed the backhoe to dig the victims’ mass grave. But he hasn’t been included among those charged in the massacre, allegedly since he has a deal with the justice department that, by giving false testimony against Arroyo, he will go scot-free.

Pasay City Regional Trial Court Judge Jesus Mupas, who himself faces four administrative charges, including “gross ignorance of the law,” receives at 11:45 a.m. the massacre suspect’s allegations and “voluminous” documents, doesn’t even bother to check out who Unas is, whether he is even real at all, and at 3:30 p.m., orders a former president’s arrest. Is this justice?

Thousands of news articles and opinion pieces have come out regarding Arroyo’s arrest. Yet there have been no news articles at all in the mainstream press that reports on the accuser Unas’ profile and his involvement in the massacre. No journalist has even bothered to look for him, to interview him.

In contrast, in the case of Bill Clinton, the US press dug so deep to even report what kind of kindergarten school his accuser Monica Lewinsky attended. In the recent case of a French politician accused of rape, the minutest details regarding the accuser were quickly reported by the press, which helped expose her as an extortionist. Witnesses against Estrada, Singson and Ocampo and even Jessica Alfaro, Hubert Webb’s accuser, have become household names. Not the case with the accuser of a former president.

The National Union of Journalists, especially since 32 of the victims were journalists, took as its crusade the prosecution of the perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre. Yet it has not even protested that a massacre suspect, Unas, will be going scot-free by giving false testimony against a former president. The dearth of reportage on Unas is just another evidence of the massive failure in recent years of the Philippine press as a pillar of democracy.

It is not the first time that a democratic nation’s press has abdicated its role. Media analysts have exposed how America’s mainstream press had uncritically reported the Bush administration’s claims after 9/11 that Iraq harbored al-Qaida terrorists, had weapons of mass destruction, and therefore the United States had all the right to invade that oil-rich country.

Conclusions in one such study (“When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina,” 2007) would describe what’s happening today in our own press:

• “Information that may be crucial for understanding and evaluating the stories in the headlines often goes unreported or woefully underreported.”

• “Despite the availability of credible sources to challenge administration spin, the press often reported those challenges in small fragments buried in the back pages simply for the record. ”

The case of Unas is just one instance of such failures. There are many more, among them:

• For all the “voluminous” documents given to the court claiming to prove that Arroyo ordered electoral sabotage, there were no “tampered Comelec documents” referred to in the charge. The analogy: you are accused of falsifying your school records but there are no such falsified records presented.

• In the NBN-ZTE controversy, unreported was the fact that the lobbying by Jose de Venecia III, the alleged “whistle-blower,” for a government contract, since he was the son of the House speaker at that time, was a clear violation of anti-graft laws. Unreported was that he represented ZTE’s rival Huawei Technologies Corp. that wanted the NBN contract. Unreported is the fact that ZTE is owned by Chinese state firms, listed in several stock exchanges, bigger than Steve Jobs’ Apple Inc., and that it was designated by the Beijing government itself as contractor for its loan for the Philippine broadband project—unreported facts, which should raise doubts why ZTE would give bribes to our officials. After being shamed as a nation of bribe-givers because of the ZTE allegations, wouldn’t have Beijing undertaken its own investigation, fired the company officials involved and even executed them, which its laws allow?

• It took an opinion column (by Fr. Joaquin Bernas) to report in detail what the impeachment charges against Chief Justice Renato Corona really were: collegial decisions of the Supreme Court, and by the majority. Why blame him for these?

There has never been a press as subservient to a sitting president, and apoplectically biased against his predecessor as we have now. This would be borne out by any content analysis of media in the past two years. “Go after GMA,” and media charges. “Go after the ombudsman,” the press obeys. “Go after the Chief Justice,” it follows. The Fourth Estate is no more.