Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Judgment day

This is my column today at the Manila Standard Today.

Today, the Sandiganbayan hands down its decision on the cases involving former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

We know about it because almost everyone in media has been trying to rouse public interest and attention toward it for quite some time now. For instance, one television network has been repeatedly showing that video clip from Estrada’s presidential inauguration where he intones the infamous line “walang kaibigan, walang kapatid…”

It’s riveting and I am sure it affects people emotionally in different ways, but at the end of it all, one can’t help wondering what the motivations of the station are for repeatedly airing that clip.
I know that Estrada’s trial and his subsequent conviction or acquittal have serious implications in this country.

I am aware that history is being written today over at Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City. Estrada happens to be the first President of this country to be put on trial for alleged sins committed during his presidency. That Estrada continues to have a strong following among the masa adds gravity to the whole proceedings.

But do we really have to turn the whole thing into a circus? Are all the screaming, huffing and puffing and flailing around really necessary? Can’t we cover the event and present the issues in a sober and dignified way befitting Estrada’s stature as former president of the Republic?

Can’t we just sit still and wait until the verdict is announced and then discuss intelligently and objectively afterwards when the facts are clear and the basis for the decision are made public?

Unfortunately, that’s not the way we do things in this country. Everything is a media event and we all know what happens when media is in charge. Everyone jumps the gun and everything is reduced to a scoop that people fight over for. When competition gets into the picture, fairness, decency, civility get forgotten.

And so, it has become almost ludicrous, the way certain sectors in media have been tripping all over themselves in an effort to deliver what they deem is “better coverage” of the whole thing.

In an effort to provide better context to the whole coverage, some networks have gone as far as allowing their news people to become the subject of the news. A newscaster got into an altercation with police and military people at the Sandiganbayan over security issues and the whole thing was reported as news, never mind the fact that the newscaster in question came out arrogant and overbearing in the process.

At least one newspaper has been using those controversial mug photos of Estrada which were taken many years ago when he was arrested, the ones that got his supporters in uproar. The newspaper editors can hem and haw and cite all kinds of justification for their decision to use those photos but they cannot say that there is no subjective intent in doing so. Those pictures send a subliminal message to people.

Many have been issuing appeals for people to be calm and to accept the verdict, whatever it may be. The other night, Estrada was shown on television hounded by cameras and reporters. Estrada very calmly announced that he had accepted his fate and that people should also do so.

In so many words, he appealed for calm and sobriety and asked people not to go a rampage and instead to just pray for him. Too bad his message was lost in the pandemonium around him, created by the reporters themselves.

We’ve been told not to indulge in speculation and that it is quite futile to do so because nobody, aside from the justices themselves, know what the verdict is going to be. But really now, who is doing the speculation? Who is rounding up supposed experts and pundits and putting them in front of cameras to pontificate and present all kinds of doomsday scenarios? Who is running after Estrada loyalists to interview them about their impending mass actions?

I don’t hear of ordinary people demanding that these be done, that these issues be explained to them in such a highly partisan manner.

We’ve been continuously told not to panic because there is no basis for widespread fear. But who the heck is making a heyday out of all the gory details about the number of soldiers being deployed and where?

Quite frankly, I think most people would rather sit it out and wait for the verdict to be made.

I was in a cab yesterday morning which, unfortunately, happened to be tuned in to an AM station. The hosts of the radio show were presenting all kinds of possibilities as far as the verdict on the case was concerned. It was surreal. Truly a little knowledge is a dangerous thing to have for people whose job is to pretend that they know everything. I am not a lawyer but I know when people are guilty of violating this country’s laws on sub judice and the hosts were not only violating the law, they were wantonly trampling it.

They first presented what they thought was the most likely verdict: a conviction on the plunder case. The hosts’ take on this conclusion would not have irked me as much if only it was based on, at the very least, appreciation of the merits of the case and of the evidence presented. Unfortunately, the hosts premised their conclusion on the supposed relationship between Estrada’s case and the legitimacy of the Arroyo administration.

According to the hosts, a verdict of not guilty would seriously imperil the legitimacy of the Arroyo administration and pave the way for Estrada’s claim to power. This line of reasoning has been flaunted many times last week prompting Estrada to denounce any plans of going back to politics.

Duh. It is as if the Supreme Court has not already ruled on the issue of the legitimacy of the Arroyo administration. Besides, the insinuation that the justices of the Sandiganbayan can be influenced by MalacaƱang makes a mockery of the whole justice system. There simply is no evidence so far that those three justices can be bought so it is completely unfair to keep making the connection. But then again, fairness has never been one of our strongest virtues as a people.

The hosts presented two other scenarios: Acquittal and a verdict of guilty on a lesser crime, supposedly graft and corruption instead of plunder. But the conclusions were based on the same gobbledygook that just did not make sense.

There is a part of me that disagrees with the Sandiganbayan on its decision not to allow live television coverage inside the courtroom today when it lays down the verdict on Estrada. But given the foregoing, I think there is some wisdom there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Last wednesday, there was one TV station (I forgot which, incidentally) that ran a news item about people being inconclusive on the verdict. There was this one guy who stated that he can't formulate an opinion because the verdict was read too fast.

Oh come on. Are these people really unable to come up to a conclusion, or just plain apathetic? The verdict being read TOO QUICKLY?! The trial has been going on for six damn years! You could take up law and graduate during that time span!

They've "got no time for this", of course. But then, you have the moral obligation to make your opinion an informed one - for the right to free speech in no way guarantees a right to be taken seriously.

The media has a twisted sense of "people empowerment" - mob rule. (insert large number here) of people can't be wrong! Even if those people are uninformed, misled or just plain apathetic.

As for apathy, screaming around the streets doesn't instantly mean that you care - unlike what those militants will tell all those you aren't joining their protests.