Explanation required, Mr. President

My position regarding what has become Republic Act No. 10175, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, has not changed since I first went over the Senate version (Senate Bill No. 2796) several months ago: I maintain that it is a deeply flawed law that will not be able to properly address the problems it was ostensibly designed for, including, but not limited to, libel, cyber-bullying, and cyber-prostitution. Of course, back in February, I was content merely to air my anxiety, because I was fairly optimistic that the ill-conceived bill would not prosper, such optimism—or maybe I should say, with the benefit of hindsight, naïveté—being largely rooted in my reluctance to entertain the notion that the denizens of officialdom would act, to use a time-honored phrase, like a bunch of drooling incompetents.

It seems opportune to raise yet again the important question of whether our leaders understand what goes on in cyberspace, even as they attempt to engage the wired middle and upper classes—certainly not the general public, in view of extant data on the level of Internet penetration, not to mention access to electricity, in the country—by establishing and using all sorts of online properties, such as web sites, blogs, and social media accounts.

The massive outcry against the anti-cybercrime law, which, as of this writing, includes four separate petitions filed with the Supreme Court by various groups, has found the apparatchiks of this administration scrambling to defend the decision of President Benigno S. Aquino III to sign it into law. For instance, at a press briefing yesterday, September 27, Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda, urging critics to wait for the pertinent Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR), said that “freedom of expression is not absolute”, and that the law “[attaches] responsibilities in cyberspace”—pronouncements that are not without merit and would be difficult to disagree with, but tend to come across as incongruous at the very least, considering that Lacierda, along with other Palace functionaries, has been known to happily heckle political opponents—transport strike organizers and participants, say, or former Chief Justice Renato Corona—using his Twitter account, and could more convincingly serve as an exemplar of irresponsible online behavior than the opposite, especially because, by virtue of his position, he is supposed to speak with the voice of the Chief Executive.

Similarly irresponsible, as well as disingenuous, are the arguments advanced by Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III, who, in response to blogger Jon Limjap’s tweet that the law, presumably on account of its provisions on libel, could be used “to silence political critics online“, replied that Limjap’s “sweeping” statement “ignores the [C]onstitution and its guarantees“, adding that the Act contained nothing that “any columnist hasn’t had to live with since time immemorial“. I would have thought that the following patently obvious things need not be said: first, the Constitution will not prevent—and in fact allows—the litigious from threatening to file or actually filing lawsuits, as Quezon himself knows from experience, whatever the courts eventually decide; second, the majority of people online are not columnists and have had no journalistic training, though pretenders do proliferate; and third, just because a particular state of affairs has persisted “since time immemorial” is not a reason to maintain said state.

None of the foregoing is to advocate that a kind of exceptionalism be observed with reference to cyberspace and the various activities that go on it it, as The Philippine Star columnist Federico J. Pascual seems to believe, rather strangely, of those against the anti-cybercrime law. I do think that there is much that deserves to be regulated online, although that requires a separate discussion. The process of law-making, however, ought to be undertaken with intelligence, sensitivity, and no small amount of caution. Given the disturbing implications of the Act in its current form, a severe shortage of precisely the aforementioned qualities may well be afflicting Congress and Malacañang, and now time, energy, and taxpayer money must be spent, if not squandered, in the fight against a law that, as Cocoy Dayao has pointed out, could have been crafted “far, far better“, and would therefore have been a more efficient use of national resources.

It is interesting to note that, according to a recent report, Aquino did not exercise his veto power over the Act because the office of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr. prepared a legal memorandum recommending the law for signing. Perhaps Ochoa or Aquino might be prevailed upon to release the contents of this memorandum to the public,  in order that the rationale behind the approval of the Act by a President who has repeatedly asserted his commitment to freedom and transparency might be understood by the people it will affect—the so-called bosses in whose interests he claims to work, and to whom he now owes a clear explanation.

Sifting through the wreck: Should Carandang take the blame?

Political commentator William M. Esposo, who is not known to mince words, took up his metaphorical chair of rage in order to wreck it against Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Secretary Ricky Carandang in the September 7 edition of his The Philippine Star column, tagging Carandang as “terribly wanting” and ultimately liable for the “substandard flow of communications during and after the hostage crisis”. Did the facts justify the energy and space involved in the destruction of (imaginary) furniture?

Esposo ticked off a list of issues that he believed Carandang had mishandled, which follows verbatim below:

  1. The “Where was P-Noy?” issue was raised on the day after the hostage incident and Carandang failed to immediately quash this mistaken notion. It took a full week for Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda to disclose on ANC Talkback what P-Noy was doing during the crisis. That time gap is unacceptable. This issue could have been easily dispelled on the day when it surfaced by narrating the president’s hour by hour activities during the crisis.
  2. The issue of Hong Kong Administrator Donald Tsang’s call to P-Noy was not properly addressed and it made the president look like he was not in charge. Carandang did not even cite that the call to P-Noy was a violation of protocol and therefore we have nothing to be defensive about for not taking it.
  3. The issue of draping the flag on the casket of the hostage taker was not immediately and properly addressed—thereby adding to the bad impression which reflected on the president. The Messaging Secretary should have immediately clarified that this was neither inspired nor committed by the government and that people here freely place the flag on the caskets of those who have been public servants.
  4. Again, the issue which was raised by the Journalist Association of Hong Kong that P-Noy should not blame the media for the bungled rescue was not immediately and properly addressed. Clearly, P-Noy merely cited media for having added to the problems but never did he attempt to put the blame solely on media. Carandang should have taken the Hong Kong journalists to task for raising a falsely premised issue.

Esposo then went on to say that, in spite of the toll that the mismanaged hostage crisis took on the “prestige and public confidence” of the Aquino administration, it nevertheless represented an opportunity for the President to surround himself solely with faithful appointees and rid himself of the company and the service of “stray dogs”, a rhetorical maneuver that conflates incompetence with disloyalty,  and insinuates that Carandang, among other people, is guilty of both. Unless Esposo knows more than he is telling, and can back it up with proof—in which case, he ought to be more explicit, for the sake of the citizenry—the conflation appears to be illogical and unfair.

There can be no denying that great lapses in communication occurred during and after the crisis, and those accountable for such lapses should be dealt with accordingly. A pertinent question, however, would seem to be this: Among the issues that Esposo raised against Carandang, which actually fall under the jurisdiction of the latter as Secretary of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO)?

According to Executive Order No. 4, which took effect on July 30, 2010, the functions of the PCDSPO are as follows:

a. Coordinate the crafting, formulation, development and enhancement of the messaging system under the Office of the President;
b. Design and recommend responses to issues that arise on a daily basis.
c. Ensure consistency in the messages issued by the Executive Department;
d. Assist in the formulation and implementation of new media strategies for the Office of the President;
e. Assist in research and development of new media instruments;
f. Liaise with the Malacañang Records Office;
g. Control and supervise the conduct of market research, monitoring public opinion, and gathering, use and analysis of other relevant data as may be necessary;
h. Formulate editorial guidelines and policies for state media;
i. Ensure consistency in the implementation of the corporate identity of the Executive Department;
j. Act as custodian of the institutional memory of the Office of the President, which includes the supervision and control of the Presidential Museum and Library, and liaison with the Malacañang Records Office;
k. Perform editorial functions for the Official Gazette; and
l. Perform such other functions as may be directed by the President.

These, on the other hand, are the functions of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), which is headed by Secretary Herminio “Sonny” Coloma:

a. Develop and implement necessary guidelines and mechanisms pertaining to the delivery and dissemination of information relating to the policies, programs, official activities and achievements of the President and the Executive Branch;
b. Develop, manage and operate viable government-owned or controlled information dissemination structure / facilities to provide the Office of the President in particular, and the Executive Branch in general, access to the people as an alternative to the private mass media entities;
c. Set up and maintain local and international field offices, where necessary, to ensure that accurate information from the President and the Executive Branch is promptly and efficiently relayed, delivered and disseminated to intended target audiences;
d. Manage, control or supervise, as may be necessary, the various government agencies and offices involved in information gathering and dissemination;
e. Coordinate and cultivate relations with private media;
f. Manage and administer the OP Website and the Web Development Office; and
g. Perform such other functions as the President may assign from time to time.

In view of the language of the Executive Order, the two communications offices, their different responsibilities notwithstanding, are intimately, even inextricably, bound up with one another, as the PCDSPO crafts the material that the PCOO circulates. At the risk of oversimplification, one might put it this way: Carandang creates the message, after which Coloma sends the message.

How, then, can Esposo assign blame wholly to Carandang, while avowing that Coloma was the “least accountable” for any communication problems that arose during the crisis?

A source with the presidential communications group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity owing to lack of authority to comment on the matter, had a different story for The Pro Pinoy Project, saying that the PCDSPO had fulfilled its role and prepared the necessary messages, but the PCOO, which is specifically tasked with media relations, had been unable to disseminate such.

The Pro Pinoy Project was only able to make preliminary contact with Coloma via e-mail and text message, and he has not made any statement as of posting time.

It is worth noting that the elevation of Carandang to his current post had previously prompted Esposo to write a piece questioning the former broadcast journalist’s fitness for the rank—a scathing article that exceeded, both in tone and in apparent intent, other publicly expressed apprehensions about the viability of the presidential communications group: Amando Dornila’s invocation of the image of the Lernaean Hydra, for instance, could be interpreted as a compliment, albeit a rather backhanded one, attesting to the efficacy of people involved in the group, as the hydra is, if nothing else, a powerful creature.

Why, one is moved to ask, is there no love lost between Esposo and Carandang? What motivates all this chair-wrecking? How much of it is driven by national concerns, and how much by parochial ones? Is the fact that Esposo’s column saw print on the same day that Carandang took his oath of office merely a coincidence?

It is no secret, after all, that Esposo is, at the very least, associated with one of two contending factions within the Aquino camp that have been at war since the presidential campaign kicked off last year—the so-called “Samar” faction that reportedly includes Maria Montelibano, a cousin of the President who handled media relations during his campaign, not to mention Coloma himself.

Of course, these factions no longer officially exist, and ought to stop existing unofficially too, as is proper, because infighting only wastes time and resources that could be used productively elsewhere.

[This also appears in The Pro Pinoy Project.]