On June 8, I joined a “forum on civil liberties and democracy” at De La Salle University on Taft Avenue called “Gathering Hope”—and came away a little more hopeful. Part of the reason I showed up was to see Rene Saguisag, the great civil libertarian of our time, in action again. I was fortunate to sit beside him, and took a couple of pictures of him in mid-speech (at that point when he was recalling an old story about a mischievous boy and a grandfather figure, whose moral the grandfather summed up in the following wise: “The answer lies in your hands”). Continue reading
The fifth in my occasional series of “unfortunate appointments” is the first on a non-lawyer; as it happens, the government’s chief law enforcement official. Column No. 440, published on May 2, 2017.
No chief of the Philippine National Police has brought as much disgrace and discredit to the institution he heads as Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, a likeable enough police officer promoted beyond his capacity and competence. His chief claim to fame was his total support for the presidential candidacy of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, whom he worked with closely when he was Davao City police chief; the main reason he remains head of the country’s 170,000 police officers is the President’s complete trust in him.
There are at least three reasons why Dela Rosa has seriously damaged the institution he leads. As early as January this year, these reasons were already clear to any observer of the PNP’s performance and indeed to any genuine friend or ally of the President’s. In the aftermath of the scandal over the kidnapping and killing of the retired Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo right inside PNP headquarters (the crime took place in October, but came to light only in January), one of the President’s closest political allies, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, called on Dela Rosa to resign. In the agitated statement Speaker Alvarez released on Jan. 20, after the full scale of the scandal became clear and threatened to bring the President’s so-called war on drugs to a permanent and premature end, the three reasons can already be discerned.
Now, in the wake of the revelations last week about the hidden detention cells inside Manila Police District Station No. 1, and especially after Dela Rosa bombastically offered what Sen. Panfilo Lacson rightly called an “incomprehensible” and “very arrogant” defense of the secret jail, it is time to revisit Alvarez’s position.
Like many, I do not want the military to oust President Duterte; that attempt at a cure (to speak figuratively) may prove to be worse than the disease. Like many, I only want our democratic processes to function, our checks and balances to work, our politicians to grow a spine worthy of the dignity of their office—so that everyone, Duterte included, can be held accountable not only by history but in real time. The lesson from the history of democratic polities is clear: The consent of the governed depends on limits placed on government. Published on April 25, 2017.
I have written in this space before: There is no conspiracy to oust President Duterte, and there are no destabilization attempts against his administration. What is the “point,” then, of all the criticism? To ask the question is to misunderstand the role of a free press, an unco-opted opposition and the democratic project itself. In our different ways, we criticize to hold him accountable.
Let me limit myself to the responsibility of journalists. Continue reading
The second column prompted by the IJF17 panel discussion on “Reporting Emerging Authoritarianism.” Published on April 18, 2017.
As it turns out, more research exists on authoritarian followers than on authoritarian leaders. I do not know this paradox for a fact, but I believe someone who does: the psychologist who is a leading scholar on authoritarianism, Bob Altemeyer. I was led to his work by a presentation Alexa Koenig of UC Berkeley made at the International Journalism Festival two weeks ago; I have since read his “The Authoritarians,” available for free online. It makes for instructive reading. It helps explain our experience under martial law, and why we may yet again find ourselves on the road to authoritarian rule.
The paradox can be explained simply. As Altemeyer writes: “The psychological mystery has always been, why would someone prefer a dictatorship to freedom? So social scientists have focused on the followers, who are seen as the main, underlying problem.” Continue reading
Published today, April 4, 2017 — but in a different time zone, and in a different frame of mind.
I find the phenomenon of willful blindness in the Duterte era vexing, and would like to take a closer look. To begin: There are degrees of not seeing.
Some are born truly sightless, or qualify as legally blind. Different institutions would have different definitions for legal blindness, but I think the nontechnical phrasing used in Merriam-Webster comes close to a common basis: “having less than 1/10 of normal vision in the more efficient eye when refractive defects are fully corrected by lenses.” (That means that seriously visually impaired people who can see well enough to drive with the help of corrective lenses are not, in fact, legally blind—a common misconception.)
Some are blind because they are unable, or unwilling, to question what they see. Continue reading
“Criticism of the President is not destabilization.” Published on March 14, 2017.
A concerted campaign to destabilize the Duterte presidency exists—but only in the opportunistic minds of political entrepreneurs like Sandra Cam or the anxious imaginations of political virgins like the President’s diehard devotees. I can also include the likes of the smart, articulate political veteran Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, whose fortunes now depend completely on his erstwhile running mate.
They have one thing in common: no real power in the Duterte administration, only access or the promise of access to the inner circle. Continue reading
Pastor Manny Pacquiao takes center stage, again. Published on March 7, 2017.
Yesterday, in the middle of the afternoon, the following trended on Twitter: #DDSBigReveal, Lascañas, Senate, Manny Pacquiao, Davao Death Squad, and Spiritual Renewal. The six trends were all related to the Senate hearing conducted by the committee on public order to assess retired policeman Arturo Lascañas’ dramatic accusations against President Duterte.
The last, in particular, referred to the witness’ explanation for changing his testimony. Last October, before the Senate committee on justice, he denied the existence of the Davao Death Squad. It was just “media hype,” he said. On Feb. 20, at a news conference in the Senate, and then yesterday, under oath a second time, he said he had been forced to lie the first time because his family’s safety had not yet been secured, but that he really wanted to tell the nation what he knows about Mr. Duterte’s alleged personal liquidation squad because of a “spiritual renewal.”
I can understand why several senators questioned Lascañas’ conversion story. (I use “conversion” here to mean, not a moving from one religion or denomination to another, but rather a turning—that’s the root of the word—from one path to another.) It goes to the issue of motivation. Why change one’s mind, and perjure one’s self? The senators are right in assuming that neither should be taken lightly. Lascañas does have some serious explaining to do.
But I think one reason “spiritual renewal” trended on Twitter yesterday is people reacted to the narrow view some of the senators held about that religious experience. Continue reading
The politics of the so-called war on drugs is addition. Column No. 431, published on February 28, 2017.
Before the Duterte administration resumes its so-called war on drugs in earnest, we should ask ourselves: Is the “surrender” of a “drug personality” addition or subtraction? Let’s say there are 1,000 residents in a barangay. The local police and barangay officials agree that an estimated 100 residents are into drugs, whether as user or as pusher. If 50 residents surrender to the police when the authorities conduct what is now known as a “tokhang” drive, how many drug personalities will the barangay now have? Is it now 50, because the number of 50 surrenderers has been subtracted from the estimate? Is it still 100? Or is it 150, because the number 50 has been added to the base?
Allies and supporters of the President have called on those who criticize the war on drugs for its high death toll to consider the bigger picture—starting with the number of surrenderers. On Jan. 18, the Philippine National Police spokesperson gave an update: Since the national “tokhang” plan went into effect (it is officially known as Oplan Double Barrel), the police have visited some 6 million houses, and processed over 1 million surrenderers.
What does it mean to surrender? Continue reading
A memorable phrase from prominent political analyst Mon Casiple, our guest in tonight’s INQ&A radio/Facebook program: “In the House [of Representatives], a congressman has one eye on the President. In the Senate, a senator has one eye on the presidency.”
“Law in the land died. I grieve for it but I do not despair over it. I know, with a certainty no argument can turn, no wind can shake, that from its dust will rise a new and better law: more just, more human, and more humane. When that will happen, I know not. That it will happen, I know.” — The great Jose W. Diokno, who died 30 years ago today
From the Diokno.org memorial website.
Published on February 21, 2017.
I have not met Solicitor General Jose Calida, but his reputation precedes him. He likes, shall we say, to cut a figure. Arriving at a function in a convoy with flashing lights; deliberately ignoring his candidate’s vice presidential running mate at a campaign rally; going around town telling officers of the court he is replacing Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, and soon. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when he justified his startling intervention in Janet Lim Napoles’ serious illegal detention case with yet another act of immodesty.
“It is up to the Justices of the Court of Appeals to assess the weight of our pleading. And, modesty aside, the Solicitor General is considered as the 16th Justice of the Supreme Court,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Of all the things he said in that disturbing news conference, this was in my view the most upsetting.
Published on February 14, 2017.
Last week the largest fast-food chain in the country “broke the internet”—as people have learned to say these days, with enthusiastic and forgivable exaggeration. Jollibee released three television commercials with compelling storylines, all variations-with-a-twist on a theme of love, and Filipinos had a collective sob. I liked the ads; I think they have the potential to teach us something we often forget about love’s true and varied nature. They also make me, a political journalist, realize that Jollibee has the unusual opportunity to remind us about yet another kind of love—but I’m getting ahead of the story.
Make that “stories.”
The three commercials are part of a continuing series of narratives each “inspired by a true story.”
Published on February 7, 2017.
After the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued its pastoral letter on extrajudicial killings, one of President Duterte’s closest allies took direct aim at the bishops. “Sinners [that] they are, the Catholic Church has no moral ascendancy to judge what is right and wrong,” Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said via SMS. “They are simply a bunch of shameless hypocrites.”
It is good that the Speaker, by all accounts a straight talker and a practical man, was clear about his antecedents, because anyone else paying attention to Philippine politics would have thought he was referring to his own chamber of Congress. Having engineered the most recent wave of political turncoatism in our history, he is no stranger to accusations of hypocrisy. What is a majority composed of newly elected or reelected politicians who changed political parties for power and convenience, after all, but a bunch of shameless hypocrites?
But Speaker Alvarez is a power center in the administration, not only because he is one of the handful of true believers who pushed a reluctant Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to run for president, but because he shares the President’s core beliefs. His broadside at the Catholic bishops, generalized to include the entire Church, springs from the same source as the President’s contempt for the religion of his strong-willed, sainted mother. That the Church has “no moral ascendancy”—this is the authentic Dutertismo note. Continue reading
Published on January 31, 2017.
The details are still scarce, but the big picture is clear: Upon instructions of President Duterte, the chief of the Philippine National Police has ordered a temporary stop to the administration’s so-called war on drugs. This is a good thing. Even if it is only temporary, it is welcome news, because it means—very simply—that fewer poor people will die in police shootings in the next several days.
I had joined my voice to the chorus of concern about the killings continuing even as the country hosted the Miss Universe beauty pageant, for only the third time in the competition’s history. We urged a temporary stop to the killings, to avoid the demoralizing, indeed immoral, spectacle of an entertainment extravaganza conducted against the backdrop of antipoor violence.
This much was clear to many of us from the start: Mr. Duterte’s war is being waged largely against people who are guilty of the crime of poverty. Take a look at the casualty lists; read the news stories; listen to the witnesses. Very many of the killed were poor. To have more of them die in the streets—without benefit of due process, under the murkiest of circumstances—while the world’s most beautiful women paraded in their swimsuits and evening wear made for an even greater scandal.
Published on January 17, 2017.
From where I stand it is clear to me that there is no conspiracy to oust President Duterte; what there is is growing resistance to Dutertismo. Those are two entirely different things.
On previous occasions I have identified three troubling aspects of the Duterte presidency: the high number of killings in the war on drugs, the hasty pivot away from the United States and toward China, and the rehabilitation of the Marcoses. As best as I can tell, these are the sources of rising public discontent, and the proof is accumulating both in the surveys and in the streets. The same polls that show a general support for the war on drugs reveal an equally robust majority concerned about the killing of mere suspects; a majority also mistrusts both China and Russia, countries the President likes because they share his contempt for human rights. The corpses, mainly of poor Duterte voters, continue to pile up in the alleys, while anti-Marcos protesters have taken to the streets and will do so again.
But to appreciate that there is no conspiracy, all one needs to do is take a look at the disarray of Duterte critics, who cannot agree on messaging, plan a sustained program of political action, or even unite behind Vice President Leni Robredo. There ARE movements, or stirrings at least, but as far as I can tell they are issue-oriented: fighting the culture of death, including the proposed lowering of the age of criminal liability; determining the future of the Philippine-American military relationship, especially in discussions within the armed services; campaigning against the Marcoses’ return to power.
All these are legitimate political exercises; only those who equate criticism with ouster plans would see them as destabilizing. Continue reading
Published on January 10, 2017.
I am one of many Filipinos who look up to Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach. She has done her beauty-contest-besotted country proud, not simply because she won the biggest prize of them all, but because of how she has conducted herself during her year-long term—her reign, in pageant-speak—as Miss Universe. Poised, smart, well-spoken and, to use her own meme-spawning phrase, confidently beautiful, she understood the most important albeit least known part of the beauty queen’s job description: diplomacy. She put that to good use when she championed the idea of the Philippines hosting the Miss Universe 2016 pageant.
The politician-businessman Chavit Singson is mainly responsible for pooling the resources that allowed the country to host this year’s competition, but Wurtzbach played a key role. Something she said at the pageant’s “kick-off” party last December is worth repeating: “It started with an idea and I asked Paula (Shugart, the president of the Miss Universe Organization) if it’s okay for me to, during my interviews, during my homecoming, if it’s okay that I mention that we would like to host the next Miss Universe competition here because, who knows, it might actually happen!”
I am sure there are others like me who supported the idea, not only as an initiative to shine the light on the Philippines, but as an opportunity to temporarily stop the killings in President Duterte’s war on drugs. Our reasoning was: Surely the administration would signal to the police, and to the vigilantes who read the same cues, to observe a ceasefire in the ongoing war while international attention is focused on the country. After all, when the competition is in full swing, women from around 90 countries will be competing for Wurtzbach’s crown in different locations in the Philippines. Who would want glamorous images of beautiful women in tourist spots in the news every day, side by side gritty pictures of dead suspects on the streets? Continue reading
Published on January 3, 2017.
A look at the most-read opinion pieces published by the Inquirer last year shows that politics, especially political anxiety over the Duterte presidency, was the dominant concern of our readers. It also shows a healthy mix of the types of opinion that resonated with the audience: columns, of course, but also an editorial, a contributed commentary, a letter to the editor—and a vivid illustration of the digital “long tail.”
But let me begin with a word about the limits of this overview. I am using statistics from the online consumption of the opinion pieces (both web and mobile). I am limiting myself to only the Top 10 pieces read online, which together account for almost one-twentieth of all Opinion traffic. I am basing the ranking on page views, as tracked by Google Analytics (not on share numbers, which can help show consumption only on social media). And I can tell you that all these 10 opinion pieces enjoyed a minimum of six-digit traffic.
(I can also add that traffic increased substantially over 2015 levels, for both Opinion and the website as a whole.)