A key figure in the Palawan civil society community, lawyer Robert Chan, has gotten the ire of the provincial board, which passed on Tuesday a resolution declaring him “persona non grata”.

Chan, who heads the Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI), has been involved in voluntary law enforcement campaigns going against illegal logging and fishing activities in Palawan.

On Tuesday, provincial board members took Chan to task over a video message produced by PNNI around two years ago for fundraising purposes, where he also criticized the “mismanagement” of the environment by the local government.

In the video, Chan had stated: “You might know our province as a great tourist destination, or as the Last Frontier. But our province is terribly mismanaged and neglected. Illegal logging, illegal fishing, and even mining are seemingly promoted to give in to big business”.

Board Member Al Rama, who authored the resolution against Chan, said he unfairly attacked the provincial government and its efforts for the environment. He blasted Chan for “baseless and malicious” claims in order to raise money for his group.

“The statement of Atty. Chan in the video is baseless and malicious which was intended to insult the provincial government and the various concerned government agencies for the purpose of raising funds for the PNNI. [He has] discredited the accomplishments and efforts of various agencies and consistently try to make a perception that government agencies [as] negligent in forming mandates just to raise funds and donation,” said Rama, reading from his resolution.

“We strongly denounce Atty. Chan’s statement. The scheme is trying to deceive the public, funders, and donors of PNNI,” he added.

Rama, however, noted that their resolution is a mere expression of their collective dislike for Chan, adding that they did not call for any specific sanctions against the NGO leader.

“For the purpose na gusto natin ipakita na hindi natin gusto ang pagkatao ni Atty. Chan, sapagkat siya ay nagsasalita ng laban sa ating pamahalaang panlalawigan. Tayo ay ginagamit sa paghingi ng donasyon at tulong, pawang kasinungalingan lamang ang sinasabi nya para makumbinsi ang mga donors,” he said.

The board members unanimously approved the resolution Tuesday during their 74th regular session.

Chan issues reaction

Reacting to the resolution, Chan said in a phone interview with Palawan News from Manila that he was merely exercising his right to free speech in being critical of the provincial government.

“Whatever was raised, any arguments raised cannot counter the fact that everyone has a right to free speech. At ‘yong nasabi ko doon, or in the past, ‘yan ay bahagi ng malayang pananalita at pagpapahayag that is granted to every citizen in Palawan or kung sino man,” he said.

He claimed he did not say anything that was intended to “besmirch” the provincial government.

“Let’s ask everybody, have you seen the video? Do you think it is a besmirching? Did you think that when I candidly said my piece, did you think my intent was to besmirch? Or was my intent to reveal, many illegal logging cases, many illegal fishing cases, many mining activities, are not being addressed? There’s a difference,” he said.

Chan said he is unsure of the motivation behind the provincial board’s action, but wondered that it may be connected to the upcoming Palawan plebiscite where their stand opposed to the province’s push for ratification.

“I really don’t know. It is puzzling, because how can something like this, which I have done two years ago, be surfaced now? Especially when it’s just two months away from the plebiscite on the division? I’m in Manila now. Is there a move to keep me here now that I am persona non grata, I can’t go back now? Also, I think it is because of the momentum the civil society is enjoying campaigning for a “no” vote against the division of Palawan. You cannot help but think that something like this is preventing us from campaigning for a “no” vote,” he said.

Expressing support to Chan, the civic groups Save Palawan Movement (SPM) and the Environmental Legal Assistance Center, Inc. (ELAC) issued separate statements criticizing the board’s action.

“We take note of the fact that this unfortunate action on the part of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan (Sanggunian), declaring him “persona non grata” through a resolution, was in direct reaction to public statements he made two years ago that they perceive to be critical of the provincial government,” the SPM said.

“As far as we know in the Palawan NGO community, there had not been any effort on the part of the Sanggunian to raise whatever concerns they had with Atty. Chan or even with other NGOs. Atty. Chan was not even given the chance to defend himself on the accusations hurled against him,” it added.

In a separate statement, the lawyers’ group Environmental Legal Assistance Center warned that the resolution is an attempt to curtail the work of non-government organizations.

“The resolution attempts to stymie the work of NGOs and civil society organizations who happen to differ in views with the provincial government,” the ELAC statement said.

“While we respect the personal sentiments of any individual, including government officials, on the work that is being done by PNNI to help protect the environment, the resolution is a troubling decision that reflects a mindset of intolerance to free speech and fair criticism that pervades among the members of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan,” it added.