To the Comelec: Shut down The Manila Times

Promulgated last February 4, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Resolution No. 8758, which sets down the implementing rules and regulations of the long-dormant Republic Act No. 9006, also known as the Fair Election Act, has triggered a veritable firestorm of protests, primarily because of Section 36, which is quoted in full below:

Any mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter, on-air correspondent, or personality who is a candidate for any elective public office, or is a campaign volunteer for or employed or retained in any capacity by any candidate, political party, or party-list group, or organization, and/or coalition thereof, shall be deemed resigned, if so required by their employer, or shall take a leave of absence from his/her work as such during the campaign period; Provided, that after he has filed his certificate of candidacy but before the campaign period, it shall be his obligation not to use his media work for premature election campaign or partisan political activity: Provided, finally, that any media practitioner who is an official of a political party or a member of the campaign staff of a candidate, political party, or party-list group, organization, and/or coalition thereof, shall not use his/her time or space to favor any candidate, political party, or party-list group, organization, and/or coalition thereof;

As sociologist Randy David pointed out in his Philippine Daily Inquirer column, the law, whatever its merits, is highly ambiguous, as “it is trying to cover in one paragraph a broad range of individuals and activities that are qualitatively different from one another“. How, for instance, is “campaign volunteer” to be defined? What about “mass media personality”? Does the law apply both to talents and to regular employees (the position taken by GMA-7), or just regular employees (the interpretation favored by ABS-CBN)? (More details on the reactions of the TV networks and individual celebrities may be found here.)

Compounding the confusion is the lack of consensus among the Comelec commissioners themselves, as revealed in the Philippine Star: Rene Sarmiento said that the law generally applies to politicians who are themselves involved in showbiz, Gregorio Larrazabal claimed that a close examination of the law would show that media personalities are not actually required to take a leave, and Nicodemo Ferrer declared that the poll body would come up with (additional?) rules for the purpose of clarification.

Amid this morass of conflicting opinions, it is of interest to note that, among the various political camps, the ruling party, Lakas-Kampi CMD, is alone in its approval of the Comelec resolution. Prospero Pichay, the campaign manager for the senatorial candidates of the administration, stated that the playing field would now be level as far as television was concerned, while Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) secretary Ronaldo Puno took it one step further, saying that such a leveling would favor Gilbert Teodoro, who has been faring miserably in the presidential race, if the periodic surveys of the electorate are any indication.

It is undeniable that Teodoro has few celebrity endorsers—a consequence of the copyright infringement brouhaha involving former Rivermaya front-man Rico Blanco, perhaps?—but Pichay, Puno, and their ilk would do well to remember that their candidate enjoys the signal privilege of being practically endorsed by a nationally distributed broadsheet, The Manila Times, in its editorials. This means that the administration candidate is not supported merely by a columnist or two, which is the case for other candidates, but by an entire publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of readers daily.

As early as October of last year, in the wake of Ondoy, the Times hailed Teodoro, then secretary of the Department of National Defense (DND) and head of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), for “an excellent job coordinating the rescue and relief efforts”, describing the disaster as a test that Teodoro passed “with grace and humility”. (I have shown elsewhere—and, to my mind, very convincingly—how preposterous such claims are.)

In December, the newspaper once more sung the praises of Teodoro:

Teodoro is a welcome presence in the political arena. Humble and self effacing, he speaks in measured and moderate tones. Foregoing bombast and oratory, he delivers well-organized, well-reasoned thoughts and statements on the issues. He refuses to stoop to personalities and mudslinging, preferring to speak on the issues, policies and the nitty-gritty of good governance.

If we read his mind, Teodoro could become the first bipartisan president in Philippine history. He could walk across the aisles to enlist the best minds in the opposition to join his government. He will cast a wider net to recruit nonparty members who share his core values and passion for public service.

Teodoro could also reach out to promising young men, women, ethnic leaders and reformed communists to join his government. He might make history by appointing naturalized Filipinos as key Palace aides. A Cabinet, after all, must be a mirror of the nation. It should include the principal members of the national family.

A government under President Teodoro could seek -peace with the communists and put an end to the New People’s Army insurgency. The next Malacañang resident could exert efforts to sign a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. President Teodoro will pursue a dialogue with all restive members of society—the rightists, the left-of-center and Church activists—in the name of reconciliation. But he will draw the line on terrorism and the Abu Sayyaf predators.

To give a final example, just last month, the Times seized upon a pastoral statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and turned it into an opportunity to fawn over Teodoro yet again:

Gilbert Teodoro is “winnable” even if current surveys do not indicate so. His ratings have risen in recent weeks and should pick up as the campaign formally starts and as more Filipinos get to know more about his integrity, character and competitive edge over his opponents.

Our fate is not in the stars or in the surveys but in ourselves—this is the message of the CBCP pastoral letter. By voting wisely, we get the President we deserve, the leader we need.

That the Times has all but explicitly announced that it backs Teodoro should be no surprise, of course, as it is owned by Dante A. Ang, formerly personal publicist to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and currently a member of Cabinet, serving as the chairman of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.

Notwithstanding the bewilderment and outrage that Resolution No. 8758 has caused, the Comelec seems determined to enforce it immediately and to the letter, considering that legal division chief Ferdinand Rafanan has threatened to file criminal cases against celebrities who endorse any candidate during the official campaign period but fail to take a leave of absence or resign from their jobs. If the Comelec wishes to demonstrate that it is serious about the implementation of the resolution, however shaky the legal grounds, then it could do no better than order The Manila Times to shut down. Should it fail to do so, but insist on cracking down on other entities and individuals, the Comelec will only reinforce the already prevalent perception that it is not, in fact, an independent body, but merely one of the many playthings at the disposal of our hardworking and prayerful iconoclast of a president.

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]

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‘A mere aberration’

PGMA at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo delivers a speech at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast on November 26, 2009.

Based on several news reports, the death toll for the Ampatuan Massacre (also referred to as the “Maguinanao Massacre”) has risen from 57 to 64, though authorities have dismissed the new figure, saying that they had stopped the excavations yesterday.

It is unknown when the additional bodies were uncovered—or, as has been remarked, if these are in fact part of the current crime being investigated, considering that Mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., the alleged mastermind, is known to be a “hatchet man” (“chainsaw man” would not be inappropriate)—but the gruesome details remain the same: a group consisting of several women, among them lawyers and at least 30 media workers, set off in a convoy of six vehicles from Buluan on the morning of November 23, Monday, to witness the proxy filing of the certificate of candidacy of gubernatorial hopeful Ishmael Mangudadatu at the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) office in Shariff Aguak. The group had previously made separate requests to the army and to the police for a security escort, but had been turned down. The convoy, along with a carful of innocent motorists, was stopped by armed men, who, led by Mayor Ampatuan, Jr., abducted, tortured, and killed most of the members of the group, in one stroke shattering the traditional shields of the powerless.

No cases of beheading or rape, which were earlier alleged, have been mentioned by investigators yet, though practically all the women were sexually mutilated. A backhoe emblazoned with the legend, “Property of the province of Maguindanao – Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr.”, which had been dispatched on a project some weeks before, was used to crush the vehicles and dig mass graves for the victims, some of whom were buried alive. (The operator of the machine is the subject of a manhunt.) Upon hearing that the military was approaching, the militiamen immediately fled, leaving the cover-up work undone, but the entire atrocity reportedly took little more than an hour to carry out.

Local and international organizations, as well as governments around the world, have condemned the massacre—a barbarity that could very well be, and hopefully is, the nadir of a political culture predicated on guns, goons, and gold—as a crime against humanity, and demanded the swift dispensation of justice. Public anger and despair at the murders continue to intensify, with various sectors holding vigils or rallies.

In view of the universal outrage at the carnage, it is inexplicable, unacceptable, and unconscionable that the government has been unwilling or unable to move quickly and decisively against the perpetrators, instead resorting to dissemblance, diminishment, and delay, perhaps out of the belief that people will fall victim to amnesia after having vented their spleens, as they have in the wake of other tragedies, or in the morbid expectation that an exponentially more horrific, and hence potentially more mediagenic, catastrophe will take place.

In dealing with the Ampatuan clan, which has enjoyed a close relationship with the current administration, the government has had its kid gloves firmly on from day one, resulting in strange contortions of rhetoric and action that would be funny under other circumstances. Malacañang conspicuously understated the massacre as “an incident between two families in Mindanao” with which it had nothing to do. Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Ronaldo Puno downplayed the expulsion of the Ampatuans from the ruling party by chairman Gilbert Teodoro as an expression of justified, but ultimately personal, outrage. For his part, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita could only muster an oblique plea, saying, “It definitely would help if, those who feel that they are already being considered as suspects, for them to turn themselves in and cooperate with the law enforcement agencies.”

The police have also said that the backhoe and witness accounts are insufficient evidence. Meanwhile, the bodies are fast deteriorating, as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has not even used lime to preserve them.

Although Ampatuan, Jr. has been charged and is now in custody, Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina was recorded as having backtracked from using the term “suspect”, and officials actually waited for the mayor to surrender last November 26, Thursday, instead of taking the initiative and hauling him in for questioning. (Department of Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera stressed that he was arrested.) And despite finally being tagged as the primary suspect, Ampatuan, Jr. was not handcuffed as he was brought to General Santos for an inquest, and then to Manila for detention.

Notwithstanding the self-professed exultance of the Palace at the news that the mayor was in custody, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo made a point of asserting that the order to nab Ampatuan, Jr. was not issued by the President, who will remain friends with the Ampatuans.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself did not even make a statement until two days after the crime, on November 25, Wednesday—and a most perfunctory statement at that:

Her speech at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast the following day, which she had designated as a National Day of Prayer and Mourning for the victims, was not a significant improvement, crammed as it was with vague and passive gestures toward God and justice.

It was perhaps the voluble—not to mention reliably inane—Press Secretary Cerge Remonde who, inadvertently or otherwise, best summed up the attitude of the present dispensation toward the Ampatuan massacre. On November 27, Remonde declared that, “It is said that the incident has few [precedents] in brutality, and for this we are condemned by the whole world. But let me assure the nation and the rest of the world that the killing of at least 57 people, including lawyers and media men, is a mere aberration” (emphasis added).

This is a poisonous suggestion that must be denounced in the strongest possible terms. By inserting the slaughter of 64 people into a space of “mere aberrations”, Remonde is attempting to disengage the government from its responsibilities, and worse, to accelerate the process of forgetting, thus displaying a species of impunity no less dangerous than that of the Ampatuans. As tantalizing as it is to believe that the Ampatuan massacre is an event so terrible that it could not have been prevented, and, anyway, will never happen again—who would not want to believe this, after all?—the fundamental impulse behind it, as a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial points out, should be shocking precisely because it is hardly aberrant:

When unmarked, black-tinted SUVs wang-wang their insolent way through a city’s roads, when government officials who have no other source of income except access to public funds ostentatiously purchase the most expensive luxury items, when public servants swagger into a room with dozens of bodyguards, we recognize the seeds of future massacres.

“Should be shocking”, that is, unless one is a callous, charter-change monomaniac like Carmen Pedrosa, who readily exonerates the Arroyo regime so as to be able to annex the tragedy for her cause.

Speaking of disturbing familiarity, it is urgently necessary, I think, that a particular aspect of the massacre be examined more closely. It may be that the militiamen who committed the murders were marching to the tune of a warlord who could be described as “psychopathic”, “sadistic”, or “monstrous”, but what are the odds that nearly all of them were psychopathic, sadistic monsters? (Psychopathy, in the clinical, rather than the popular, sense, is estimated to manifest itself in only 1% of the population, though researchers have suggested that psychopaths are overrepresented in occupations such as politics, business, and entertainment.) The bigger picture is more abysmal.

According to “Boy”, the sole gunman on the scene who claimed he could not bring himself to participate in the killing, “Datu Andal himself said […] to us: anyone from the Mangudadatu clan—women or children—should be killed… We [didn’t] ask why, we just followed orders. “How many of us have found ourselves in exactly the same situation—one in which we, in spite of our moral convictions, failed to question authority and therefore suffered the perils of obedience?

In the early 1960s, perhaps inspired in part by the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann—also the subject of a book by philosopher Hannah Arendt, in which she introduced the concept of the “banality of evil”—Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to test how far people were willing to obey commands from an authority figure. The volunteers, who had been recruited via newspaper ads, were made to play the role of “teacher”, and conducted simple memory exercises that a “learner” would provide answers to. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was to administer progressively higher electric shocks to a “learner”, who was strapped to a miniature electric chair. There were 30 shock levels in all, from 15 volts to 450 volts. The electrocution was not real, but the learner, an actor, would express discomfort and pain, even scream, to convince the teacher that actual shocks were being delivered by the machine. Every time the teacher hesitated, the experimenter would prompt the teacher to press the switch.

In a poll that Milgram conducted among psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults, 100% of the respondents predicted that the teachers would defy the experimenter, and that few teachers would go beyond the mild shock levels. The results of Milgram’s first set of experiments proved otherwise: out of 40 teachers, 26 administered the maximum shock of 450 volts. He would go on to conduct 17 other variations on the experiment and compile the results in Obedience to Authority, first published in 1974. Below are selected paragraphs from the opening chapter:

Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. This was seen time and again in our studies and has been observed in several universities where the experiment was repeated. It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of “obedient” subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky.  […] The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation—a conception of his duties as a subject—and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies.

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

The difficult lesson that emerged from Milgram’s experiments is one of the lessons that we need to revisit and keep uppermost in our minds as we struggle to deal with the grisly reality and the grislier implications of the Ampatuan Massacre. Those among us who sow discord and commit acts of unimaginable cruelty may just be doing their jobs. The perpetration of evil need not be, and is in fact far from, a mere aberration.

The moral bankruptcy of the COMELEC

In an eight-page resolution dated November 11, 2009, the Second Division of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), composed of commissioners Nicodemeo T. Ferrer, Lucenito N. Tagle, and Elias R. Yusoph, dismissed the petition of Ang Ladlad LGBT Party to be accredited under the party-list system of represention. The dismissal was based on the following: that Ang Ladlad, in seeking to represent the Filipino lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, advocated sexual immortality, which is offensive to Christian and Muslim beliefs, and violative of Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines; that, therefore, the organization had been untruthful when in stating that neither it nor any of its nominees had failed to comply with any laws, rules, or regulations relating to the elections; and that, finally, the state is duty-bound to protect the youth from moral and spiritual degradation, as provided for in Article II, Section 13 of the 1987 Constitution, and granting the petition would mean exposing young people to an environment that does not conform “to the teachings of our faith” [emphasis added]. (Sass Rogando Sasot of Rainbow Bloggers adapts this letter to fit the current situation and shows how absurd such teachings, which in any case do not bind everyone, can be, when taken too far.)

Variously described as “bigoted, homophobic, and medieval“, “theocratic“, and “nothing short of chaka“, the decision evinces only the most perfunctory of efforts on the part of the commissioners to find purchase in law, as they derived their concept of immorality from the Bible and from the Koran—or, more accurately, from online sources that cited the Bible and the Koran, which is indicative of how little rigor and seriousness the commissioners applied to the matter. That they then quoted the Constitution underscores how appallingly disingenuous their sensibilities are, for, as has been pointed out in The BLIPS Network and Philippine Commentary, they conveniently managed to skip over those provisions that render the separation of church and state inviolable and uphold the freedom of religion. One statement in Article III, Section 5, seems especially cogent: “No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”

This is not to say that the state cannot contemplate issues of morality—rather, the nature of the morality it upholds, in view of existing jurisprudence, should be secular and widely accepted.

Public moral disputes must be settled within the framework of an established civil order, for, regardless of how creed-inclusive the COMELEC resolution at hand pretends to be, using the standards of a given religion or religions to shape public policy would go against the very concept of religious freedom—such a concept allows an individual to cleave to no religion whatsoever. A pertinent excerpt from Supreme Court decision on the case of Estrada vs. Escritor (A.M. No. P-02-1651) follows, with key passages emphasized:

In other words, government action, including its proscription of immorality as expressed in criminal law like concubinage, must have a secular purpose. That is, the government proscribes this conduct because it is “detrimental (or dangerous) to those conditions upon which depend the existence and progress of human society” and not because the conduct is proscribed by the beliefs of one religion or the other. Although admittedly, moral judgments based on religion might have a compelling influence on those engaged in public deliberations over what actions would be considered a moral disapprobation punishable by law. After all, they might also be adherents of a religion and thus have religious opinions and moral codes with a compelling influence on them; the human mind endeavors to regulate the temporal and spiritual institutions of society in a uniform manner, harmonizing earth with heaven. Succinctly put, a law could be religious or Kantian or Aquinian or utilitarian in its deepest roots, but it must have an articulable and discernible secular purpose and justification to pass scrutiny of the religion clauses. Otherwise, if a law has an apparent secular purpose but upon closer examination shows a discriminatory and prohibitory religious purpose, the law will be struck down for being offensive of the religion clauses as in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. where the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an ordinance prohibiting animal sacrifice of the Santeria. Recognizing the religious nature of the Filipinos and the elevating influence of religion in society, however, the Philippine constitution’s religion clauses prescribe not a strict but a benevolent neutrality. Benevolent neutrality recognizes that government must pursue its secular goals and interests but at the same time strives to uphold religious liberty to the greatest extent possible within flexible constitutional limits. Thus, although the morality contemplated by laws is secular, benevolent neutrality could allow for accommodation of morality based on religion, provided it does not offend compelling state interests.

Furthermore, the state must ensure that its laws square with widely accepted concepts of what is right and what is wrong, for otherwise the law would have no meaning or purpose, and would be impossible to enforce—moral norms ought not to be implemented at the cost of fundamental liberties. Inherent in such a requirement is not a drive toward arbitrariness or whimsy, but a recognition that laws, like the human beings who enact them, are inevitably prone to change. Here is a relevant paragraph from White Light Corporation, et al. vs. City of Manila (G.R. No. 122846):

To be candid about it, the oft-quoted American maxim that “you cannot legislate morality” is ultimately illegitimate as a matter of law, since as explained by Calabresi, that phrase is more accurately interpreted as meaning that efforts to legislate morality will fail if they are widely at variance with public attitudes about right and wrong. Our penal laws, for one, are founded on age-old moral traditions, and as long as there are widely accepted distinctions between right and wrong, they will remain so oriented.

In view of the foregoing, it is worth highlighting that the Revised Penal Code, which, per the Supreme Court itself, is “founded on age-old moral traditions”, does not, in fact, criminalize non-heterosexuality or non-heterosexual acts, no matter how certain provisions—those pertaining to vagrancy and grave scandal, to give two examples—have been misused and abused to censure them, and so it is reasonable to extrapolate that the public has believed since 1930 that, from a legal, secular standpoint, non-heterosexuality and non-heterosexual acts are not wrong.

What is most patently offensive about the COMELEC resolution is the conclusion, which is a gem of sheer passive-aggressive persecution: “We are not condemning the LGBT, but we cannot compromise the well-being of the greater number of our people, especially the youth.” The contra-factual, nonsensical assumptions in operation are these: that the LGBT sector and the youth sector are wholly separate; and that the former poses a dire threat to the well-being of the latter, and therefore should be suppressed. In other words, it would seem that the COMELEC is willing to “tolerate”—that supreme act of condescension—the existence of the LGBT community as long as it stays away from the youth, never mind that many young people are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. As Indian intellectual Gayatri Spivak has asserted, however, “Tolerance doesn’t work both ways. The rich and the poor are not equally free to sleep under the bridges of Paris. Tolerance is a loaded virtue because you have to have a base of power to practice it. You cannot ask certain people to ‘tolerate’ a culture that has historically ignored them at the same time that their children are being indoctrinated into it.”

Taken to its logical end, the resolution imprisons the LGBT community in social and cultural ghettos easily supervised and controlled, banishes them from public affairs in general and the political arena in particular, and even, as Manolo Quezon points out, lays the ground for the eventual arrest of Ang Ladlad members and supporters, beginning with chairman Danton Remoto. How the COMELEC resolution against Ang Ladlad can be construed as not ultimately condemnatory of the LGBT community can only involve the most convoluted, most contrived, and most morally bankrupt mental maneuvers. It must be stressed that what is at stake here are not the rights of a minority. The rights of representation and participation are not for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals alone—these are human rights, which the state must ever strive to protect against those who would abrogate them.