Government News Analysis

Hard men and soft soap

Apparently we don’t have enough reality soap operas in the Philippines. So yesterday, the mainstream media were lured to a press conference to hear a police officer state that the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, ordered people killed while he was the mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines. What made this peak viewing, however, was that just a few months ago this same cop denied these allegations. So this piece of soap had it all. But what it really had was great timing.

It came – not coincidentally – just as the country is waiting to hear whether Duterte’s arch critic, Senator Leila De Lima, has been arrested on charges of profiteering from the sale of illegal drugs from operations inside New Bilibid Prison, the country’s biggest penal institution which came under her purview when she was Justice Secretary for the previous Liberal Party administration.

On Friday, three charges were filed against De Lima with a Regional Trial Court in Manila. The main one, Illegal Drug Trading, is being brought under the 2002 Violation of the Comprehensive Drugs Act. This is a non-bailable offence and carries a life-term if she’s convicted.

And so the press gathering was part of an orchestrated attempt to take the heat off De Lima by switching attention to Duterte.

One of the orchestra’s main conductors is De Lima’s closest senate ally, Antonio Trillanes IV. He called the press conference. His main focus as a Philippine senator – like that of De Lima – seems to be to bring down this government by seeking Duterte’s impeachment. And his ‘meet the press’ initiative, in which he presented Special Police Officer 3, Arturo Lascañas (photo), to the media is another piece of that strategy.

Lascañas told the gathering that the Davao Death Squad (DDS) – the shadowy organisation allegedly behind extrajudicial killings when Duterte was the city’s mayor – actually existed and that members were paid between PHP20,000 and PHP100,000, depending on the value of the target, to carry out assassinations. It was the usual emotional performance that we’ve come to expect from hard men of alleged Philippine execution squads. There were lots of tears; a key ingredient of Philippine soap dramas.

It seems to have been lost on much of the media, however, that at Lascañas’s last public performance – before the Senate justice and public-order committees in October – he flatly denied any knowledge of the DDS. Certainly, he was never a member of it according to his testimony there. In fact, whenever the question of the DDS came up his stock answer was: “All lies”. Now, he tells us he was a “founding member” of the death squad. In all this, though, there was no healthy skepticism on behalf of the media in their reporting of this staged event.

But it begs the question – was that “all lies” or is this “all lies”? Of course, as we’ve seen repeatedly with the anti-Duterte camp, reliable witnesses are only those who corroborate their claims. Back in October, Lascañas, according to Duterte’s detractors – not least De Lima and Trillanes – was an unreliable witness; he’d been got at, paid-off or something. Now, it seems, he’s the paragon of truth – as credible as the Gospels.

This is like kids playing rock-paper-scissors – best of three, wrong result; make it best of five, wrong result; make it best of seven … In other words, Trillanes and Co. will keep this up until they get the result they want. It has nothing to do with truth and honour; it has to do with the dishonest business of politics.

Let’s not also forget that this was a press conference. It wasn’t a law court. This wasn’t sworn testimony; there was no cross examination; no actual verifiable evidence produced – nothing, zero, zip, nada. This was nothing more than a TV spectacular put on for sinister political purposes. It was purely to steal the news cycle. And, let’s be fair – thanks to the naïveté of the media who never questioned the motives behind it – it did just that. Well, it would have helped ratings and that’s far more important than denouncing its credibility.

Thankfully, we believe, the viewing audience is less gullible than the journalistic ‘profession’ that’s supposed to be looking out for their interests. They will not be so easily duped. They might also be wondering why that same profession is so reluctant to question De Lima about the case against her. They’ve certainly had plenty of opportunity, but they’re more than happy to report her speeches and rebuttals verbatim – give her a platform. There are never any hard questions? Why, for example, has no one asked her to show how exactly she financed her senate election campaign? Why has no one asked her to make public her bank records?

Well, we shouldn’t have to wait much longer to get the answers to those questions and more. We’re fairly sure that De Lima will be charged with drug offences and all this will be laid before the court then.

Meanwhile, the soap opera continued as Presidential Communications Secretary, Martin Andanar, claimed that journalists were offered money (up to US$1,000) – to turn up to the press conference – something, of course, which Trillanes and an aghast media flatly deny. Worse, the media’s precious sensitivities had been bruised by such a claim.

Visibly affronted, they put out their own press statement which, in part said: “To our knowledge, no such incident occurred. Such practice is not tolerated among Senate reporters … We would like to ask the Secretary to prove his allegations as such statements placed our credibility and our respective media entities under a cloud of doubt”.

But let’s be brutally honest, if it did happen, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that members of the Philippine media have accepted bribes – even ask for payment. They have plenty of form. Also, they’re well used to slinging around unsubstantiated allegations themselves. Why should it be any different when they’re on the receiving end?

But it wasn’t Martin Andanar that “placed our credibility … under a cloud,” it was already there. They managed that without any outside help. In case they’ve missed the story that everyone else has been publishing online, the media have no credibility. They squandered it years ago and shouldn’t expect any sympathy now that they’re under the spotlight.

Furthermore, Trillanes is a member of the Philippine Senate – again, not exactly the most bribe-free zone in the country. We won’t bore you with the litany of corruption and graft that’s come out of that place in the past. But then it seems members of that chamber evidently believe they’re above the law anyway. Back in February, De Lima petitioned the Court of Appeals to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent the Department of Justice from prosecuting her on the grounds that she’s an elected official. Call us old fashioned, but that should be grounds for a prosecution. Thankfully, the court saw it that way too and dismissed her plea.

So let’s get real about all this. What was on show at that press conference was an unreliable ‘witness’ brought before the largely tame, unquestioning anti-Duterte media, by one of the president’s enemies at a time when it was politically advantageous to switch the country’s attention from the impending arrest of the main Duterte critic and focus on allegations against the president. It’s called stealing the news cycle and, as usual, the organisers had inside help – whether it was paid for or not.

At the weekend, meanwhile, another section of the anti-Duterte orchestra struck up with its contribution to the Save De Lima opus. Progressive-Left champion, Human Rights Watch (HRW), claimed that the charges filed with the court were “an act of political vindictiveness”. In the hope of building the noise further and bringing in brass sections from around the planet, it added: “It’s more important than ever that concerned lawmakers and foreign governments step up to denounce the Duterte administration’s disregard for basic human rights”.

Coincidental timing again? Of course not. The impresario for this piece of the work was HRW deputy Asia director, Phelim Kine, another regular vocal critic of Duterte and friend of De Lima. “The Duterte administration seems intent on using the courts to punish prominent critics of its murderous war on drugs,” he added for good measure, just a day before the Regional Trial Court is due to determine whether De Lima should be arrested and face trial.

Again, early on Saturday morning, setting off at 4:00 a.m. from Manila’s Quirino Grandstand, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and the Council of the Laity staged their Walk For Life – a rally to protest extrajudicial killings which they link to Duterte’s War on Drugs as well as to decry moves to reimpose the death penalty. And making an appearance there was not other than Leila De Lima herself. “I’m here with the people because of our shared thoughts and opinion, and shared views, and shared convictions,” she said.

De lima of course is innocent until she’s presumed guilty. But that’s the point. There’s a trial, evidence is produced by one side, challenged by the other and then the court decides on its verdict. In other words, irksome though it might be to them, the Liberal Party doesn’t decide, Human Rights Watch doesn’t decide and the Liberal Party’s pet media don’t decide. The court decides. That’s how independent judiciaries work in democracies and they’re far preferable to ad hoc autocratic pronouncements by vested interests.

And then, of course, if she’s found guilty she has the right to appeal. And again, the court will decide the outcome of that case. If Human Rights Watch has any “material evidence” to prove De Lima’s innocence, however, then they should submit it in the interests of justice.  If it doesn’t it should butt out and let the law take its course. Or does it assume that friends of Human Rights Watch are somehow above the law, as De Lima does herself? That the rules that apply to the rest of society shouldn’t apply to them? Is that how human rights work? Selectively?

These protests are little more than the rantings of an elite forced into retreat. A sideshow. For the Liberal Party, however, their effect could be far more detrimental if it continues to support them. They could be the death cries of a party that believes it can change the force of gravity – that some how it has the guile or the wit to reverse the pull of the moon and switch the tides direction away from Duterte and towards itself.

From everything we see, however, it will have the polar-opposite effect. It will increase the power of the pull towards Duterte. And Trillanes along with the naïve and self-delusional mainstream media will have played a key role in bringing that about.

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