Philippine senator, The Honourable Franklin Magtunao Drilon (photo) – Frank for short – a former Senate president, its current Minority Floor Leader and a leading light of the Liberal Party, is crying “Fake News”. That’s his response to allegations made against him concerning PHP5 million which it’s claimed he received in donations from a very shady source for his 2010 election campaign – money, it’s further claimed, which he failed to declare on his Statement of Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE), a requirement under the country’s election rules.
The “Fake News defence” seems to have become a standard in the Philippines – particularly where Liberal Party politicians and Liberal Party appointees are concerned. In short, anything that puts them in a bad light is more or less automatically dismissed as “Fake News” either by them or by their supporters.
It’s almost as if by simply uttering this phrase all allegations and criticisms against them are instantly disproved and neutralised; that the phrase is so powerful it can dissolve all other arguments – legal or otherwise; that once spoken there’s no need for any further scrutiny. That those who use the phrase are incontrovertibly innocent of any charge and those at whom it’s directed are incontrovertibly guilty of lying.
It would seem that the Philippines doesn’t need law courts anymore – that due process is a thing of the past. All someone needs to do is shout “Fake News” and it’s case dismissed; case closed. This magic phrase then makes rule of law in the Philippines incredibly uncomplicated – it does away with legal argument, evidential proof. It also makes everyone in the legal profession from clerks of the court to lawyers to judges redundant. “Fake News” – if those who use it have their way – is not just a defence, it’s a verdict. It’s the entire trial.
The Filipino public who regularly tear their hair out over their frustration of waiting for cases to come to court and be tried – and for those hearings to be concluded sometime in their life time – would welcome almost anything that would speed up the country’s judicial system. But for them, cries of “Fake News” is not that panacea.
And it won’t matter how many times it’s used, they’ll continue to demand accountability – and particularly from those in public office.
Senator Leila De Lima – another leading light of the Liberal Party – who’s currently in the custody of the Philippine National Police after being arrested on serious drugs-crime charges, had used the phrase on a number of occasions. According to her supporters, her arrest is based on fake evidence. She’s not a criminal, they contend; she’s a “political prisoner”.
No need for a court case there either, then. The phrase has been uttered; she must be innocent – or so goes the logic. She should be released immediately; public money shouldn’t be squandered on bringing her to trial. Where’s the sense in trying ‘innocent’ people? Someone’s already declared she’s a victim of Fake News. That should be sufficient; release her from her incarceration and return her to the Senate. That’s the gist of the Fake News argument.
The same goes for any other Liberal who finds him/herself the subject of a judicious probe. In practically all cases, claiming to be politically persecuted and the target of “Fake News” is now standard defence procedure. It’s played like a trump card in whist or bridge. It should win, apparently, the moment it’s presented.
In reality, however, the point is no-one outside those directly involved in any alleged crime is in a position to determine guilt or innocence. We don’t know the truth of what Drilon or De Lima are being accused of. They could be simply falsely accused or they could be as guilty as sin. But that’s what courts are for.
In the Philippines, those accused enjoy presumption of innocence – one of the principles of English Common Law laid out in the Justinian Code and guaranteed by the 1987 Constitution; Article III, Section 14(2). But that’s not the same thing as them being declared innocent. Only properly constituted trial courts can do that.
Thus, we don’t know either, for example, whether Andre Bautista, the former chairman of the Commission on Elections – the regulator and administrator of elections in the Philippines which, among other things, requires the transparent filing of the SOCE – is guilty of amassing unexplained wealth for which he’s being investigated.
Neither do we know for a fact at this stage if his fellow Liberal, Supreme Court Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno – currently the subject of an impeachment complaint – abused her office. Her camp regularly puts forward the “Fake News” defence – she, too, according to her is the recipient of false, manufactured politically motivated charges.
In countries which run on the rule of law, however, such matters are tested through the judicial process. Decisive legal argument conducted through the codes of the court is what determines guilt or innocence. It’s not concluded by the mob nor by who can yell “Fake News” first – legal argument, testimony, examination, cross-examination and points of law all heard in a courtroom is how law’s practiced in functioning democracies; not by villagers with tar torches and pitchforks seeking ‘justice’ in some dark catacomb as the moon ducks behind a black cloud.
As far as Drilon’s present situation is concerned, all we know is that his accuser – Janet Lim-Napoles, the so-called mastermind behind the 2013 pork-barrel scam which washed PHP10 billion of public cash into the pockets of a number of congressmen via a maze of ghost front companies and dummy NGOs [Spilling the beans on pork, 31 May 2017] – has stated that she made a PHP5 million donation to his election run. For his part, Drilon denies ever receiving a single centavo of contribution from Napoles. And right there is the kernel of all criminal court cases – accusation and denial.
Thus, all we can conclude factually from these counter claims is that one of them is lying. What we definitely don’t know at this stage is which one. These are extremely serious charges and therefore should be taken seriously. Drilon holds a very senior position in the Senate – and not one that puts him above the law; being the Minority Floor Leader doesn’t give him impunity – and so these allegations should be thoroughly investigated. And, actually, Drilon should want them to be.
But they should be looked at impartially. For example, the fact that his second cousin, the disgraced former mayor of Drilon’s home town, Iloilo City – Jed Patrick Mabilog – was removed from office by the Office of the Ombudsman last October for financial irregularities has zero bearing on what the senator is alleged to have done.
No one should suggest, for example, that there’s some kind of genetic predisposition for fiscal turpitude – we’re pretty sure that would be “Fake News” – or indeed that there’s any relationship whatsoever between what Mabilog was found guilty of and what Drilon is accused of.
Mabilog – a Liberal Party mayor – had failed to account for the rocketing improvement in his net worth which shot up by a little under PHP9 million in less than 12 months. He was also accused of being a narco-politician and heavily engaged in the illegal drugs trade in the Visayas region of the country. He dismissed that as – you guessed it – “Fake News”.
The chances are, though, we’ll never know if it was or not. Mabilog left for Japan on 29 August last year to attend the Citynet 10th Disaster Cluster Seminar in Yokohama, and has not returned home since. The word from his camp is that he’s on sick leave somewhere; his dismissal from office was carried out in absentia.
Meanwhile, cousin Frank won’t be the first high-ranking Philippine politician to be wrongly accused, if that turns out to be the case. But, alternatively, nor will he be the first to be found guilty of financial malfeasance should that turn out to be shown. The litany of shamed corrupt Filipino politicians is long and – for want of a better word – illustrious.
But the point is this. Those handling the affairs of state – not least those who are making state laws – should be held to the highest account. Their offices don’t put them beyond prosecution and they can’t claim some “Get out of Jail” sanctuary by invoking the notion of “Fake News”. “Fake News” is not a counter argument; it’s not any kind of argument. It has no weight if it stands alone. It requires supportive evidence. It’s little more than a schoolyard rant and amounts to little more than calling names.
At best it’s a knee-jerk reaction; at worst it’s a ploy to obfuscate and divert attention from the facts. But it’s also pretty much worthless and the more it’s used in situations like these, the more its currency diminishes. It already sounds like a broken record and the danger for Drilon – who may well have absolutely nothing to hide – is that it does nothing for his image of innocence. “Fake News” claims are often seen as the last resort of scoundrels – used in an attempt to brow beat an adversary into submission; to sow doubt or to switch the narrative.
Drilon, of course, should know all that. He’s a lawyer. He has a law degree from the University of the Philippines College of Law; he was admitted to the Philippine Bar 48 years ago; in 1979 and 1984 he was a Bar Examiner. He’s a former managing partner of one of the country’s leading law firms, ACCRALaw.
No lawyer can stand up in court and defend his client by simply proclaiming the charges against him/her are nothing more than Fake News. Claims and evidence supporting them need to be refuted by legal argument – at least sufficient to cause an element of doubt. And parroting two monosyllabic words repeatedly cannot achieve that. In other words, while the onus of establishing guilt is on the prosecution; the onus of substantiating claims of Fake News is on those who make those claims.
The world’s jails, if you take the word of inmates, are crammed full of innocent people – among other things they’re serving time for murder, serial-murder, rape, child molestation, kidnapping and arson. But they were put behind bars because the cases against them were proved in a court of law. They were presumed innocent but found guilty.
Many appeal their sentences on technical grounds, by discovery of new evidence and so on. None, however, appeal on the grounds of “Fake News”. As we all know, the law is already an ass – it doesn’t need to be made a bigger one by allowing spurious arguments such as that to be legitimised per se.
Consequently, Drilon’s response to the allegations that have been made against him – that, “We will not further comment on such obviously fake news intended to harass the opposition” – to our mind doesn’t do him any good. His response is both dismissive and haughty, but worse than that he’s made the issue political which will draw the ire of all his party’s opponents.
In the public arena, many will now see him as just another politician caught with his hand in the cookie jar claiming to have been framed by his political enemies – let’s face it, not exactly a novel scenario to be proposed by a member of the country’s political class.
Take a break from “Fake”, Frank. A more reserved approach would have put him above all that – something like, ‘It’s in the hands of my legal counsel and all matters relating to the allegations, which I rebut, will be dealt with in the appropriate place, at the appropriate time”.
But then, the urge to level an accusation of “Fake News” seems to be irresistible – even when it’s utterly pointless and carries no weight; even if it’s becoming de rigueur to do so. Claims of “Fake News” are like those stories of the sightings of mermaids – they evoke a seductive image but fail to deliver any tangible proof of what was being described was real.