COVER STORY Democracy Under Attack

IT WAS a tumultuous year for Philippine democracy as the Duterte administration pushed its own brand of social order by undermining the democratic principles that the country has upheld over the years. Barefaced attacks rained on critical voices. Congressmen wrestled for power. Accused plunderers walked away scot-free. Making headlines in 2018 were events and developments which set back our fitful progress toward democracy. ATTACK ON THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE SUPREME COURT Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (SC) Maria Lourdes Sereno held a special position in government — one with the power to question and challenge even President Rodrigo Duterte’s policies and actions. She was not silent in the face of the comments from the chief executive on such issues as the implementation of Martial Law in Mindanao. It was no surprise then that Duterte moved against Sereno. Duterte denied on several occasions any involvement in the ouster of Sereno, but the president’s hand clearly showed when Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a quo warranto petition in March 2018, accusing her of usurpation of public office and failure to fully declare her wealth. This move by Calida came seven months after a little-known lawyer filed an impeachment complaint accusing Sereno of several offenses, among them the alleged failure to truthfully disclose her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN); falsifying court resolutions; manipulating the processes of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC); and misusing public funds. The impeachment complaint against Sereno was a huge story, especially since the Philippines had a similar experience with the late Chief Justice Renato Corona who was ousted in 2012 due to SALN issues. But media’s reference to that event did not differentiate the context of the charges against Sereno.

Then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno during the Day of Valor event organized by the Movement Against Tyranny | Photo by Lito Ocampo
CMFR noted that the media’s reporting of Sereno’s ordeals since it began in late 2017 depended mostly on partisan talking heads that either challenged or defended her. Media reports picked up two key issues in the development: The use of the quo warranto petition and the SALN issue which was based on Sereno no longer able to show copies of her submission of her SALN while she was a professor of law in the University of the Philippines. The press made some effort to tackle the quo warranto issue, but only a few reports sought voices from outside the partisan field. Points made by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), which sought to establish its non-partisan character on the issue, for instance, did not receive much attention from the media. Instead, media reports chose to rely on opposing legal sources — Sereno’s legal team and Calida’s camp.  As for the SALN issue, CMFR observed that it was overlooked in the coverage, even after Sereno’s removal as chief magistrate, by a vote of 8-6, in May 2018. It received scant attention from the media in the weeks leading to and after the landmark ruling was announced. The reports merely referenced the issue in passing, often citing only Calida’s petition or the SC decision itself. The highly relevant background regarding Sereno’s SALN was left in the sidelines — that it was a technicality based on the fact that she had not kept her SALN records that far back. Sereno and her lawyers explained this but media did not give her response to the accusation the attention it deserved. In the end, the debacle demonstrated the politicization of the Supreme Court. Political patronage in the justice system may not be new. But nothing quite as blatant as this crisis shows how the differences among the justices of the High Court reflects not so much ideological and philosophical principles but more the politics of those who appointed them. Rappler reported on a study on social networks at the Supreme Court conducted by Professors Bjorn Dressel of the Australian National University and Tomoo Inoue of Seiki University in Japan which looked at a sample of 47 “mega-political” en banc decisions from 1986 to 2015 and found a pattern in the way justices vote. Pointing to hierarchical pressure within the Court, the researchers observed that justices who knew the chief magistrate via university affiliation (they went to the same law school) or work (they came from the same field prior to serving in the SC), are more likely to make the same vote as the Chief Justice. Likewise, a Chief Justice appointed by a certain president was more likely to vote in favor of the sitting administration, reflecting the political interests of those who appointed them. Following the pattern, if a Chief Justice votes for the administration, justices within his or her network are more likely to do the same. “Taken together, the findings suggest that informal political linkages (presidential pressure) and hierarchical pressures (from the chief justice) are important in animating the voting behavior of individual justices,” said the study’s draft, which was provided to Rappler by the authors. HOUSE TAKEOVER In practically the blink of an eye, former president and Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was propelled back to power as the new House Speaker shortly before President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July 2018, replacing Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez. In a running commentary of the SONA, a news anchor described the change in leadership as a vindication of the former president. But it was essentially a coup d’etat by Arroyo’s supporters that stole media attention from Duterte himself. In fact, some media reports noted that Duterte was exasperated  over the squabble for the leadership at the House of Representatives and had threatened to cancel his 2018 SONA altogether. The takeover indeed overshadowed Duterte’s third SONA, as live coverage and commentary pitted Alvarez and Arroyo against each other. Most reports about the power-grab, however, were without analysis and focused on the details of the power struggle among political rival groups in the House. News accounts made clear that Arroyo’s rise was a collective effort by her network of allies which she had consolidated while Alvarez was making powerful enemies with his abrasive leadership.

Former president now Speaker of the House of Representatives Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo presided the session on July 24, 2018, a day after she replaced  Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez as House Speaker. | Photo from the House of Representative’s Photo Journal 
In this case, the media was correct in providing background on Arroyo’s checkered past. Following her successful takeover as House Speaker, some media reports made an effort to recall Arroyo’s presidential track record, with some accounts reminding the public of the many controversies that hounded her nine-year term. ATTACK ON A SENATOR-CRITIC President Duterte next hurled his wrath at former Navy officer, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, with his issuance of Proclamation 572 which voided the amnesty granted him by former President Benigno Aquino III. The decree appeared in the Classified Ads section of The Manila Times on September 4, 2018 — an unusual location for an announcement from no less than the highest official in the land. Initial media reports found that the order had been signed earlier on August 31, four days prior to publication, just before Duterte’s visit to Israel and Jordan. The proclamation declared Trillanes’ amnesty as “void ab initio,” and claimed that the senator did not file an Official Amnesty Application Form and that he “never expressed his guilt” over the crimes committed during the Oakwood Mutiny and Peninsula Manila Siege in 2003 and 2007, respectively. In addition, Duterte had ordered the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Court Martial of the Armed forces of the Philippines (AFP) to “pursue all criminal and administrative cases” against the senator. Fortunately for Trillanes, the media wasted no time covering the issues involved and responded quickly to the government’s attempt to silence a critic. The media were quick to debunk the proclamation’s claims that there was no copy of Trillanes’ amnesty application in the AFP. Primetime news programs recalled their own reports in 2011 and included video clips of Trillanes holding his application form as he showed it to the media. The Philippine Daily Inquirer in its September 5, 2018 issue included a file photo dated January 5, 2011 which showed Trillanes doing the same. Prior to the voiding of his amnesty, Trillanes had initiated separate investigations on President Duterte’s bank accounts; the alleged involvement of former Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte in the PHP6.4 billion shabu shipment that slipped past the Bureau of Customs in 2017; and Solicitor General Jose Calida’s possible conflict of interest in the government contracts awarded to his family-owned security agency — a context that media included in their coverage of the issue. But as the media duly noted, Trillanes wasn’t the first to be harassed and threatened by Duterte.

Screengrab from Bandila.
A defender of human rights, Senator Leila de Lima landed in Duterte’s crosshairs as her advocacy clashed with his unorthodox style of governance, which was reflected in his brutal approach to the illegal drug problem. In August 2016, President Duterte revealed a “drug matrix” linking De Lima to the illegal drug trade. And as if in response to Duterte’s revelations, the House Committee on Justice in September held its own inquiries into the drug trade in the New Bilibid Prison. Congressmen accused De Lima of facilitating the dealings, a conclusion based on the hostile testimonies of convicted drug lords and former officials who clearly had an ax to grind against the senator. De Lima denied the allegations, even as congressmen publicly dissected her personal life. After five months, De Lima turned herself in to the police in February 2017 upon the issuance of an arrest warrant for her alleged involvement in the drug trade. But detention was never a hindrance for De Lima as she continued to perform her duties as a senator in the ways that she could — releasing statements about the burning issues of the day and authoring bills and resolutions right from her confinement area in the Philippine National Police Custodial Center. PLUNDERER WALKS FREE The Sandiganbayan decided to acquit former Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla of plunder charges in connection with the diversion of some PHP10-billion in Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF). Revilla was accused of receiving kickbacks amounting to PHP224.5 million for funneling PDAF to bogus foundations. But unlike the former senator, his co-accused, alleged mastermind Janet Lim Napoles and Revilla’s former legal officer Richard Cambe, were found guilty and sentenced to reclusion perpetua (20 to 40 years’ imprisonment). Arguably the biggest corruption scandal in recent years, the Sandiganbayan First Division’s verdict on the pork barrel scam was the first court decision on the high profile case. But the verdict had been anticipated when it came at the close of 2018, which seemed part of the pattern that freed officials who had been similarly accused of plunder. The verdict made headlines. Media reports cited the anti-graft court’s reasoning, and noted the reactions and views of concerned parties who were confused by Revilla’s acquittal. Although extensive enough, CMFR noted that only a few reports explained the contentious part of the verdict — how can the decision issue an acquittal along with civil liability, requiring Revilla to return the amount in question?

Revilla was acquitted of plunder while his former Chief of Staff Richard Cambe and Pork Barrel Queen Janet Lim Napoles were found guilty. Also in accused in the pork barrel scam were Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada who were both out on bail. | Screengrab from ABS-CBN News Youtube account. 
The issue was with the third paragraph of the decision’s dispositive portion which stated that the “accused are held solidarily and jointly liable to return to the National Treasury” the amount of PHP124.5 million. This part was confusing due to its failure to specify who among the accused — Revilla, Cambe and Napoles — were being ordered to return the money. Reports noted the court’s order to return the money, without providing the basis for Revilla’s liability, as he was acquitted. Most news accounts skipped explaining this issue, satisfied with quoting Revilla’s lawyers who insisted that their client was no longer liable because he was acquitted of plunder charges. Unfortunately, the experts were lawyers still in practice, who would be careful not to directly criticize a court’s decision. Former SC Spokesperson Theodore Te, meanwhile, pointed out that the problem was with the inconsistencies in the court decision and its failure to clearly specify that the basis of civil liability does not exist. Justice Geraldine Faith Econg, the decision’s ponente, admitted to the court’s lack of clarity in the Revilla case and said the former may file a motion to clarify the matter. Econg’s statement hinted that the case could be far from over. DOUBLE STANDARDS AND SLUGGISH JUSTICE On a similar note, 2018 was also a slow year for the dispensation of justice. Senator De Lima languished in detention, with no option for bail. Adding insult to injury, De Lima’s case has suffered delays as early as 2017 as the DOJ amended the charges against her. More delays were also caused by the changes among Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court judges after three of them inhibited themselves from her case, while another opted for early retirement. It took one year and five months since her arrest before De Lima was arraigned in July and August 2018 for two of the three drug charges against her. Justice delayed is justice denied. The sluggish pace with which De Lima’s case proceeded just goes to show that the delays were used as a means to detain her further without bail. In contrast, former senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada were freed after posting millions of pesos in bail in 2015 and 2017, respectively, for their alleged involvement in the PDAF scam, despite plunder being a non-bailable offense. Both have pending cases at the Sandiganbayan, which may or may not be resolved in their favor, given Revilla’s acquittal. Given Enrile and Estrada’s release, it follows that De Lima, at some point, must also be afforded the opportunity to post bail. The media must be ready to pick up any development on the matter.

INTO 2019 The Duterte government’s control of public discourse has so far succeeded in tilting the scales in its favor. Through intimidation and threats, what Duterte wants, he gets, no matter what the law says. His fellow politicians exploit the political disarray to their advantage. The media’s duty to educate and inform has become even more crucial. A free press sustains and strengthens democracy by keeping citizens informed. Clearly, there have been positives and negatives in how the media reported developments in 2018; but the coverage leaves much to be desired. CMFR notes the immensity of the challenge posed by a government that cannot tolerate criticism, among other troubling tendencies. Is the press up to its task of reporting the truth no matter the consequences to itself and to its interests?   Quite a number of journalists and media organizations support everything the government says and does. There is a lack of consensus in the media community on the need to check the abuse of executive power and the manipulation of existing laws to suit the current administration’s plans and interests. As it is, much of media are failing to uphold democratic values due as much to low skills levels as well as to an absence of commitment to press freedom, free expression, and the imperative of upholding the rule of law for the sake of this country and its people. In 2019 and beyond, journalists need not only to be vigilant but also to review their mandate as a pillar of democracy and to hone their skills so they can more competently speak truth to power. To do less will be a disservice to the public that they are supposed to serve.