MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE) - The Department of Justice (DOJ) is calling for caution amid speculations missing Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani may have ties with the Al Qaeda or the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the southern Philippine island of Sulu.
Justice Sec. Leila De Lima said the circumstances leading to the loss of communication with Atyani and his Filipino crew should be investigated thoroughly before conclusions are made even as she believes foreign journalists working in what may be high-risk areas in the country should properly coordinate with local authorities for their own safety.
"Siguro huwag muna tayo padalos dalos. Alamin muna natin ang pangyayari. What exactly is the agenda, if any, of that journalist other than, you know, his work? He is a journalist and siyempre may mga karapatan din ang journalist, so kailangan balansehin yan: national security, national interest as against a journalist's rights," she said.
"Wala pa naman tayong nakikitang overt act on [the part] of that journalist na tending to show he is in conspiracy or in cahoots with the Abu Sayyaf terrorists," she added.
Atyani, the regional bureau chief of the Al Arabiya news channel based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and his crew, Rolando Retrero and Ramilito Vera, went missing in Sulu after going out to film a documentary on Tuesday.
For now, De Lima said she has yet to identify a particular law Atyani may have violated since merely failing to coordinate with local authorities is a matter of policy, not a matter of law.
Possible ban, repercussions must be carefully assessed
De Lima came to the defense of Interior and Local Government Sec. Jesse Robredo who was quoted in the media as saying any foreigner who imperils himself and "creates problems" for the Philippines "should not be allowed in the country again." She said Robredo was merely concerned about the welfare of foreigners vis a vis that of the state.
Just the same, De Lima stood on her position.
"Dapat ang isang foreign journalist ay nagpapaalam sa proper local authority sa pakay niya, sa destinasyon niya, because ultimately tayo din ang mananagot sa safety of kaligtasan ng isang journalist so may punto dyan si Sec. Jesse. Pero ang advice ko lang, huwag ring padalos dalos. Kailangan i-weigh and pros and cons and tingnan nang husto yung circumstances," De Lima said.
De Lima intends to coordinate with Robredo to discuss his proposal to ban Atyani from entering the Philippines again. The Bureau of Immigration (BI), the agency responsible for the implementation of any ban on foreign nationals, is an attached agency of the DOJ.
"We will coordinate with Sec. Robredo so that we would know exactly kung ano ang naging basehan ng recommendation ni Sec. Jesse and then pag-aaralan naming kung ano ang magiging basean kung sakaling ganun ang magiging posisyon ng estado na i-ban nga this particular journalist. [We will] make our own recommendation, either we will agree or disagree," she said.
Should the DOJ agree with the proposal, Atyani will first be deported and then declared persona non grata.
"Kailangan may sapat na basehan. We cannot just declare persona non grata or ban someone from coming back to the Philippines nang walang dahilan. Siyempre, may repercussions din yan lalo na sa international media.
The DOJ may call on Atyani to shed light on his disappearance, once he surfaces.
"Maybe we can invite him, ask him questions -- what's his agenda..." De Lima said.