Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Theatre of the absurd

Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that former National Economic and Development Authority director general Romulo Neri did squeal on his boss, the President of the Republic of the Philippines, during the Senate hearing last week. Let’s imagine the worst-, or, paradoxically, the best-case scenario, depending on where one stands in this whole scheme of things. Let’s presume that Neri did say that the President is involved in the anomalous national broadband network deal.

Of course, in reality, the President may or may not be involved. We don’t really know and now that Neri has clammed up, we won’t know for sure unless someone else comes out with another damning testimony. But unlike others who have been quick to jump on Neri, I refuse to pin the blame on the former Neda chief alone for the bungled opportunity.

There was just no way that that particular hearing could have been productive. Not even despite the fact that at least 18 senators—practically the whole Senate!—took turns grilling then Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos, Neri, Jose de Venecia III, Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza and other government officials.

The simple fact was that the witnesses, particularly Neri, did not get 18 independent and incisive cross-examinations. What they got was 17 repetitions of the same questions, asked in a variety of ways and in as many emotional subtexts as possible.

The simple fact was that except in the case of two or three senators, the rest obviously came to that hearing completely unprepared and seemed intent on simply groping their way around until they stumbled on something. The hearing meandered along aimlessly.

What was more infuriating was that if only the senators listened while other senators were asking questions and paid attention to the answers of the witnesses, they could have built on each other’s questions and did not have to repeat the same line of questioning, or cover aspects of the deal that had already been discussed by other senators.

Thus, if Neri did squeal on the President and let loose a whole can of worms, here’s what I reckoned would have happened. Except for the first exchange, what follows is fictional meant to illustrate just how inept, childish, selfish, and disorganized our senators can be.

Senator 1: So you were offered P200 million as bribe. Did you discuss the bribe with the President?

Neri: I did. I told the President.

Senator 1: (Visibly elated, while other senators immediately wake up and begin to tune in to the discussion). So, what did the President tell you to do?

Neri: She told me to forget about the bribe.

Senator 1: (Grandstanding) Did the President follow it up?

Neri: Yes. We had several discussions concerning ZTE-NBN with the President.

Senator 1: (Looking really pleased with himself) So the President had full knowledge about the deal and was aware that bribes were being offered all around and yet did not do anything to stop the deal?

Senator 2: (Interrupting) Mr. Chairman, I think that this witness is not in a position to provide information on the President’s actions since he is not with the President 24/7.

Senator 1: (Taking offense) Mr. Chairman, I still have the floor. I think that the testimony of the witness should first be heard. We have to remember that Secretary Neri is a respected technocrat, Cabinet secretary, a person of integrity and is a responsible person, blah, blah, blah.

(Other senators join in the fray and the heated discussion goes on for two hours. Someone makes an observation about the admissibility of hearsay information; someone makes an appeal for sobriety and caution supposedly on behalf of the Filipino people. Finally, Neri is allowed to answer the question provided… and there’s another spirited discussion on the qualifying criterion until the qualifying criterion is lost in translation).

Neri: I had many conversations with the President about it so I can say that she was aware.

Senator 3: Mr. Neri, (dramatically) is -it-your-testimony—that-the-President, the highest official of this land, is guilty (bangs fist on table) of graft and corruption, perhaps plunder even, and knowingly abetted the consummation of an anomalous contract?

Neri: As I said, I had discussions with the President about the ZTE-NBN deal insofar as areas that had to do with Neda’s involvement in the deal. I am not privy to the other aspects of the deal.

Senator 4: Mr. Chairman, we are dealing here with inchoate conclusions and character assassination. I would like to state for the record that I resent being made a party to this charade. It is a shame that we have degenerated to such abysmally low levels (walks out).

Senator 3: Mr. Neri, is it your testimony that the President told you to favor ZTE rather than Amsterdam Holdings?

Neri: (Evasive) The President indicated that ZTE would be in a position to provide the requirements of the national broadband network.

Senator 5: Let me repeat for the record (playing to the gallery), is it your testimony that the President ordered that the multi-million dollar deal be awarded to ZTE despite the fact that it was an anomalous transaction?

Neri: Your honor, what I said was…

Senator 5: (Going for the kill) Mr. Neri, we remind you that you are under oath and that you have come here to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So do you think that the President has committed plunder by knowingly…

Senator 6: (Interrupting) Your honor, I think this line of questioning is out of line. We are already making accusations…

(At which point, tempers flare again and another heated discussion ensues which lasts for another hour. It is now almost 8 p.m. and in the interest of time, senators agree to limit their questions to three minutes each).

Senator 7: (Begins with another tack) Mr. Neri, how old are you? At your age, do you think that we have solemn responsibility as elders of this nation to do what is morally right?

Senator 8: Mr. Neri, you said that (repeats his understanding of the testimony). So it is your opinion that the President is culpable of gross violations of her oath of office.

Neri: Your honor, my opinion is irrelevant. I am here to present facts.

Senator 9: Mr. Neri, did you not graduate from the University of the Philippines and therefore aware of your solemn responsibility as “iskolar ng bayan” to…

Senator 10: Mr. Neri, do you know a certain (name of person)? Are you aware that he received a text message this morning saying that if you incriminate the President, all the bones in your body will be broken?

Senator 11: Mr. Neri, are you aware of the relationship between the President and the First Gentleman? They share a common bedroom…

You get the drift.

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