Column: Deconstructing Zubiri

The third part of the Zubiri trilogy, published on February 1, 2011. I must say that, on at least one crucial aspect, the ex-senator was telling the truth: He had kept a gentlemanly silence, and was provoked to complain about me only after I had taken another senator to task.

EITHER CONFLICTED or callously cynical. Or both. But whichever way we read Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri’s letter of complaint against me (which I ran in this space last week in full and unedited), I think the reasonable reader can reach only one conclusion: It is incoherent.

In language shriveled by nine years in the House and three years in the Senate, Zubiri first sought to stake a claim to higher ground. “This Representation strongly respect [sic] all opinions and criticisms as one of my advocacies is to uphold the freedom of expression and freedom of the press.” And then he turned around and attacked his own supposed advocacy: “It [he means both freedoms] should not be utilized to malign a person’s reputation much more mislead the public by presenting twisted facts and biased opinions.”

This is a mealy-mouthed mouthful. What this really means is that Zubiri believes in public opinion as long as it is favorable to him. Otherwise, not so much. Zubiri, in other words, is no Voltaire. He will not defend a person’s right to his opinion if he does not agree with it.

But one step at a time. First, the issue of biased opinion.

He sought to paint me, cynically, as irredeemably biased against him. “I have been the favorite topic of one of your columnists, John Nery, who admittedly [sic] is a “friend from childhood” of my greatest critique [sic] Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III.” The way this sentence is phrased (and the sense is repeated in the letter), it seems he is the one asserting the fact. But of course the disclosure, made several times, came from me. I wanted to signal to the reader that a possible conflict of interest may be involved—and I was confident enough to do so because my views were based on both principle and fact. Zubiri uses my own admission as though it were already proof of bias.

On the other hand, Zubiri failed to come clean about his own political alliance with the key members of the SET majority. This is no mere childhood friendship; the forging of what Zubiri in an excess of hubris called the “Magnificent Seven” is the kind of realpolitik that defines our political culture. But nowhere in his lengthy letter did he once refer to Senators Angara, Lapid and Legarda as, well, magnificent. If he believed the sudden political realignment he engineered had nothing to do with the conduct of his electoral counter-protest, why not come out in the open? I am certain I am not the only one who thinks his deliberate silence is damning.

Second, the issue of twisted facts.

On this, he is absolutely right. The most essential facts have been twisted. But it is Zubiri and the SET majority who have done the twisting. Toward the end of his complaint, Zubiri deployed what he obviously considers his most powerful argument: the “SET gave due course to proceed with my remaining counter-protest based on its own examination and appreciation of the ballots which resulted to [sic] a finding that more than 50 percent of ballots specifically cited in the revision reports were spurious and resulting to [sic] around 80,000 votes recovered.”

Zubiri’s counter-protest has certainly proceeded, but only on the say-so of the willing majority and against the SET’s own rules. As Justice Antonio Carpio, the chair of the SET himself, said: “I cannot subscribe to this view [that more than 50 percent of ballots were spurious] as it is utterly baseless.” Carpio characterized the SET majority’s appreciation of fraud as “bare assertion,” and added: “In fact, the spurious ballots constitute a mere 2.2 percent of the total contested ballots in Quezon City, Manila, Batangas, and Bulacan.” Could Carpio have made all this up? In a revealing footnote (revealing because the SET majority did not bother to do the math), Carpio disclosed that, out of a total of 795,401 ballots, only 17,481 were found spurious. Could he have pulled these numbers out of thin air?

Unfortunately, the saga of the twisted facts does not end there. Carpio also noted that, according to the testimony of the boards of election inspectors involved, the spurious ballots in vote-rich Quezon City and Manila were introduced only after election day! The implication, and this is entirely my own interpretation, is that the “syndicates” Zubiri alluded to in his letter as conspiring against him zeroed in on these voting precincts only after these had been identified in an election protest. (Else why bother to put in spurious ballots in uncontested ballot boxes?) But here’s the punch line. It was Zubiri himself who identified the precincts! Are we laughing yet?

What did Zubiri want to accomplish with his complaint? “I therefore ask this honorable paper to wait for the completion of the process before it passes judgment upon me.” This sounds like a reasonable request, but in fact it is deeply irrational, and counter-democratic. I believe that Zubiri’s calculated counter-protest was meant precisely to delay the day of reckoning; it was, it is, meant to game the system. If it took him three years to complete the revision of ballots in his pilot precincts, it will take him another six years to complete the entire process—well after the term to which Pimentel was elected and which Zubiri served has ended. Should I or any other responsible citizen wait until that time before calling him a cheat? That is an unreasonable restraint on our basic freedom to call a spade a cheating backhoe.

Zubiri ended his letter by invoking the Inquirer’s reason for being. “Responsible journalism is what I ask—balanced news, fearless views.” And yet he damned me, as columnist, for the fearlessness of my views. Like I said, either conflicted or cynical. Or both.

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