Thu, 27 Jun 2019

CHEERS! THE media has responded quickly to President Duterte's most recent attempt to silence a critic, exposing the voiding of the grant of amnesty to Senator Antonio Trillanes IV as a blatant political maneuver without legal basis. The fiasco has done exactly the opposite of its objective, gaining support not just for Trillanes, but for other critical voices.

President Rodrigo Duterte issued on August 31 Proclamation 572, which said that former Navy officer and now opposition senator Trillanes did not file an Official Amnesty Application Form and that he "never expressed his guilt for the crimes that were committed on the occasion of the Oakwood Mutiny and Peninsula Manila Hotel Siege." Because of alleged non-compliance with these minimum requirements, Duterte declared the amnesty granted to Trillanes by former president Benigno Aquino III "void ab initio."

The president ordered the Department of Justice and Court Martial of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to "pursue all criminal and administrative cases" against Trillanes in relation to his previous mutinies. Duterte also ordered the military and the police to "employ all lawful means" to apprehend the senator.

Proclamation 572 was clearly signed before Duterte's departure for Israel and Jordan. It was published in the Classified Ads section of The Manila Times four days after it was signed, on September 4, during which Duterte was already abroad.

While Duterte was away, media lost no time covering the issues involved. It also provided live coverage for the besieged senator who recalled the case and argued against the proclamation with little interruption.

CMFR monitored the reporting on the issue of primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2's TV Patrol, GMA-7's 24 Oras, TV5's Aksyon, CNN Philippines' News Night), the leading broadsheets and their online counterparts (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin and The Manila Times) and selected online news sites from September 4 to September 11.

(Also See, "Only One Big Story at a Time?")

Retrieved Facts from Archives

The media was quick to debunk the claim in the proclamation that there was no available copy of Trillanes' amnesty application in the AFP. Recalling their own reports in 2011, when the senator applied for amnesty, the primetime programs included file video clips of Trillanes holding his application form and showing these to the media.

In its print edition, the Inquirer included a file photo dated January 5, 2011, of Trillanes holding an application form all filled out as required for his plea for amnesty. It also included images of previous headlines which then appeared on the broadsheet.

News Night anchor Pia Hontiveros interviewed former president Aquino on September 4 and asked him: if Trillanes neither applied for amnesty nor admitted guilt, would he have been granted amnesty? Aquino referred to the documents he had and said that Trillanes had complied with both requirements.

Projected Expert Legal Points

CMFR observed that the media did not limit their sources to Trillanes, his lawyer, and lawmakers who supported him. Their reports sought the comments of law experts, who questioned the legality of the proclamation.

Among the lawyers interviewed were former Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Vina, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, Centerlaw Trustee Gilbert Andres and Integrated Bar of the Philippines President Abdiel Fajardo, who agreed that the granting of amnesty is final and its revocation cannot be a unilateral act by the president, because such act requires the concurrence of Congress.

But, with the exception of News Night, the primetime newscasts took to the low road, unable to resist the showbiz appeal of actor Robin Padilla who rushed to the Senate, challenging the senator to surrender. Among the print media monitored, The Manila Times ran the front page story "Robin to Sonny: Don't hide under the skirt of the Senate" on September 6. The other three papers did not have a story on Padilla.

These reports pointed out that Padilla was the first to be granted pardon by President Duterte, but did not establish the difference between "pardon" and "amnesty." None of the stories pointed out how Padilla could not enhance the arguments made to arrest Trillanes, and what his appearance outside the Senate obviously was: a cheap stunt to win over viewers to their side.

Noted Pattern of Attack Against Critics

This is not the first time that a vocal critic of the administration has been subjected to political persecution. Commendably, some reports were able to point out the pattern.

The Inquirer's "Senators give sanctuary to colleague" noted that "Trillanes became the second presidential critic to be similarly threatened with detention" after Senator Leila de Lima, who is behind bars on what many view as trumped up drug charges against her in retaliation for her call to investigate extrajudicial killings in Davao City when Duterte was mayor, and the killings in connection with the president's drug campaign. A 24 Oras report pointed out this fact as well.

The reports also noted the context of Trillanes' separate investigations of Duterte's bank accounts; the alleged involvement of the president's son, Paolo Duterte, in the PHP6.4 billion shabu shipment that slipped through the Bureau of Customs; and Solicitor General Jose Calida's possible conflict of interest in the profitable government contracts awarded to his family-owned security agency.

New Justification?

Coming from his trip to Israel and Jordan last September 8, Duterte added even more to the growing impression of the weakness of the government's case, as it now moved to question another aspect of the grant. He argued that amnesty must be personally granted by the president, that former Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin usurped authority by recommending amnesty to Trillanes, approving and signing it himself. In a much ballyhooed tete-a-tete with Presidential Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, Jr. on September 11, the exchange highlighted how the grant of amnesty cannot be delegated to the Cabinet secretaries, with Panelo citing the legal basis of this in the Supreme Court decision on Constantino v. Cuisia. Both men seemed oblivious to the fact that the grant of amnesty was signed on to by then President Benigno Aquino III, who had already spoken on this matter days earlier.

Media kept up even as government shifted gears, providing another justification for voiding the amnesty. Promptly, News Night, Inquirer, and Rappler pointed out that this new reason for the voiding of Trillanes' amnesty was nowhere to be found in Proclamation 572.

Rappler also interviewed lawyers Dan Gatmaytan and Edwin Lacierda, who criticized Panelo's interpretation of Constantino v. Cuisia, which applied to presidential actions not including the granting of amnesty.

Presidential Overreach

The voiding of Trillanes' amnesty was not allowed to jell without someone shaking down the claim.

The media did well to take on this presidential attempt to silence a critic, pointing to its lack of factual or legal basis. Such measure of resistance will assist the restoration of due process and rule of law, weaken the forces of those who have trampled these values, upholding through analytical reports the constitutional role of the press in a democracy.

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