Lost in the News: Impeachment’s Dual Nature

by Luis Adrian Hidalgo

Keeping up with the hearings, coverage has lacked analysis that could help the public judge for themselves the quality of charges against Sereno nor understand the politics of this impeachment.


THE IMPEACHMENT of a sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is no minor enterprise. The effort to take down Maria Lourdes Sereno from the highest position of the judiciary, an independent and co-equal branch of government, surely involves extraordinary resources and manpower.

Its coverage requires a diverse set of skills on the part of the media. The motion to impeach moves through the legislative process; it does not go to any court until the motion prospers and requires the Senate to constitute itself as a court as for a trial. But, the process retains its political nature while moving through required legal procedures to form a judgment of the impeached official.

On November 22, 2017, the House Committee on Justice led by Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali began hearing for probable cause the complaint filed by a little known political figure, lawyer Lorenzo “Larry” Gadon, a failed senatorial candidate in the 2016 elections, also the president of a group that calls itself the Pro-Duterte Constitutional Reformers to Federalism.

A separate complaint by the advocacy group Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) was also submitted to the committee but was dismissed in September 2017 after being deemed insufficient in form.

Gadon charged that Sereno “failed” to truthfully disclose her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN); “falsified” court resolutions; “manipulated” processes of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC); and misused public funds, among others. With at least thirty committee members present to determine probable cause, the hearing took nearly nine hours to finish.

Sereno’s legal team called the proceedings a “fishing expedition” designed to find fault with the Chief Justice — a view also expressed by other parties, such as multi-sectoral group Movement Against Tyranny, who also criticized the conduct of the hearing.

Ako Bicol Party-list Rep. Rodel Batocabe echoed the criticism during the first hearing, upon noting that Gadon could not back up his allegations with evidence pertaining to Sereno’s SALN. “At first glance, with due respect to this committee, it seems that we are now on a fishing expedition because we do not have a definite year of SALN,” Batocabe said.

Obviously, the first hearing in the house made headlines. Should the impeachment complaint prosper, Chief Justice Sereno would be the second chief magistrate to be dismissed from duty, following Chief Justice Renato Corona, now deceased, who was removed in 2012 for his non-disclosure of assets.

To date, the committee has conducted a total of thirteen hearings for probable cause: seven in 2017 and six in 2018, as of writing. Reports on the proceedings appeared in the front page of the newspapers in November and December 2017. By the resumption in January 2018, however, these reports were relegated to the inside pages, perhaps showing the decline in interest on the subject.

Keeping up with the hearings, coverage has lacked analysis that could help the public judge for themselves the quality of charges against Sereno nor understand the politics of this impeachment.

Talking Heads

From the beginning, Sereno’s legal team had asserted that Gadon’s allegations were “baseless” and “totally false,” reiterating the point after the resumption of the hearing on January 15 that no evidence could support impeachability.

From those pushing the side of impeachment with House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez in the lead, the expectation of Sereno’s impeachment in late February or early March was certain.

CMFR focused on the coverage of the newspapers (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Malaya Business Insight, Manila Standard, Daily Tribune and The Manila Times) as well as select news websites where there’s ample space for discussions on the complexities of the issue.

In late 2017, much of the coverage did little more than quote the issue’s talking heads, pitting the statements of one side against the other, often in separate reports without connection or context to explain charges and defense against accusations. Reports did not provide background on the process, the president’s hostility toward Sereno, or analysis that would help the public understand the impeachment process as both legal and political.

More recent reports in 2018 reflected little understanding about the issues raised against Sereno, hardly providing any analysis of both its legal and political aspects which could have built on past reports and commentary since August 2017.

There has been little reference to the experience of the Corona impeachment which was avidly followed then as media set out to probe the charges and find evidence on their own. In contrast, there seems no curiosity about the proceedings in the house, the monotony of which have left the audience bored, uninterested and sadly, uninformed.

Newspaper coverage should provide space for analysis and interpretative reports on complex political developments such as an impeachment. The fact that President Duterte has expressed the intent to file impeachment charges against Ombudsman Conchita Morales should be a signal to the press that these cases call for more thoughtful and deliberative treatment in the news.

In-depth reports on such an issue must be part of the news coverage. Political analysis is a skill now required for journalistic coverage to be meaningful given these issues. Such reports draw from experts who may have more learning and insight, but the journalistic presentation make them more interesting and easier to understand.

The Politics of Impeachment

Media covered the issue as breaking news, reporting it part-by-part instead of weaving it into one coherent narrative complete with helpful analysis that reflects the dual perspective — the legal and political.

The few that touched on the politics in motion cited experts and reported the views of concerned groups.

As a political process, the impeachment requires the appreciation of the tight-knit networks which facilitate swift political action when this is desired by the ruling clique. Connecting the dots, reports could have shown the politics in motion behind the formalities and technicalities of required procedure. Ulterior motives need to be surfaced, as well as the political gains of those involved. A political backgrounder shows how every administration works its will through the congressional mill.

In September 2017, Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform (IPER), remarked that the impeachment rap “seems very political” and warned that the possible victim would not only be the accused, but the institution itself. (“Political analyst believes Sereno oust bid is politcally motivated”)

Still in September, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and the Makati Business Club likewise cautioned against the misuse of impeachment as a tool to “undermine judicial independence” (“IBP cautions Congress on misuse of impeachment” and “Go easy on impeachments, IBP warns”) or to “persecute and silence individuals with opposing views.” (“Makati Business Club ‘deeply concerned’ over impeachment complaints”)

Anti-corruption group Filipino Alliance for Transparency and Empowerment (FATE) in October 2017 questioned Speaker Alvarez’s motive for pushing Sereno’s impeachment. The group alleged that Alvarez is seeking revenge against Sereno for testifying against him in 2007 in a case related to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport 3 controversy for which Alvarez, then the secretary of the now defunct Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), was charged with corruption and accused of profiteering. (“FATE questions Speaker’s motives for impeaching Sereno”)

A PhilStar.com report in September 2017, “Impeachment against Sereno raises political questions,” recalled how the tension between President Duterte and Sereno began in August 2016 when he slammed the Chief Justice for commenting that his decision to name “narco-judges” could lead to a constitutional crisis. It also called attention to the political affiliations of the persons who filed impeachment raps against the Chief Justice as shown in an infographic, and noted that most of the endorsers of the complaint in the House of Representatives are members of PDP-Laban, currently the ruling coalition, having provided candidate Duterte with the necessary political affiliation. A brief explainer on the impeachment process was included, accompanied by a flow chart.

The Legal Question

As for the legal perspective, the media needed only to focus on the central question, the basis of the impeachment: Are the charges against Chief Justice Sereno, presuming validity for the sake of argument, impeachable offenses.

What news reports failed to surface and discuss, opinion articles yielded in terms of context, political insight and analysis.

As early as August 2017, lawyer and former Ateneo School of Government Dean Antonio La Viña wrote about the quality of the impeachment charges against Sereno. In his column “Eagle Eyes” in the Manila Standard, the lawyer described the impeachment raps as “a fool’s errand,” citing procedural infirmities, as well as the absence of personal knowledge the complainants — the VACC and lawyer Larry Gadon — are alleging, which he also dismissed as “not based on the facts.”

Three months later, La Viña would emphasize in an article published in Rappler that even if proven, the charges against Sereno were “clearly not impeachable.” For an offense to be impeachable, he explained, the act must be done “with deliberate or malicious intent” — a factor that congressmen must prove and find prima facie evidence for the deed to be considered a betrayal of public trust or a culpable violation of the Constitution. La Viña also argued that Gadon had committed perjury after admitting to the committee that he acquired information from other people, despite declaring personal knowledge of his allegations in his verified complaint. This rendered Gadon’s evidence as mere “hearsay” and “inadmissible,” La Viña said. (“Gadon crumbles, will House fall with him?”)

Inquirer columnist Raul Palabrica lamented how the impeachment process in the Philippines has been “bastardized” and “treated like an ordinary political tool that is wielded at the whim or caprice of whoever has the opportunity to use it.” Palabrica likewise called out Gadon and the committee for treating lightly or “without the degree of seriousness” the impeachment process deserves. (“Bastardized impeachment process”)

Palabrica, who served as Inquirer’s reader’s advocate, must also lament how news accounts have missed the point by getting stuck with the talking heads. With research by Robbin Dagle, CMFR Intern

* Palabrica also previously served as a commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). He now heads the Inquirer’s Editorial Council.