PR puff approach to crime

The president has explained why she is taking the initiative of personally presenting criminal suspects to the media.  By her presence, she says, the apprehension of criminals is given the widest media projection.

There are three reasons why this is being done, says the president. The first is to teach criminals a lesson by exposing them to public humiliation.  The second is to inform the public that the police are doing their job and to show appreciation for their work.  And the third is to send a message to criminals that their days are numbered because this government is serious in its campaign against criminality.

There is probably a fourth unstated reason: To project the image of a tough hands-on president bent on establishing a strong republic by ridding the country of criminals and terrorists.

It was her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, who, as head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission, cultivated an enduring image as number one crime buster by means of the photo-op.  He was the compassionate father when he ate in the humble dwellings of slum dwellers.  But he was the unforgiving supreme law-enforcer when he dealt with criminals.  The image his publicists created was archetypal; it suited Erap’s film persona and served him well.  It is obvious in whose footsteps President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is trying to follow.

Human rights activists have correctly questioned the legality of this presidential habit.  Arrested suspects who are presented to the media have not yet been convicted.  Under our legal system, they are entitled to the presumption of innocence until they are found guilty by a proper court of law.  Not even the president can claim the right to punish mere suspects by subjecting them to public humiliation.  In more civilized societies, the names of suspects are, as a rule, omitted in media reports to protect their identities.

One can sympathize with the president’s impatience over the apparent inability of the police to stop crime.  But this inability hardly has anything to do with the lack of publicity of police apprehensions. The problem is more basic.  Many police officers are either in collusion with criminal gangs or are extremely vulnerable to bribery. The few good ones among the police are too ill equipped and poorly trained to go after criminals.  On top of that, there is often no adequate protection for witnesses.  And little care is given to preserve important evidence needed to prosecute offenders, especially the wealthy and well-connected ones.  The cure for all these is clearly not to be found in a heightened public relations campaign led by the president, but in a sustained and comprehensive reform of the entire social organization of law-enforcement.

To point out these issues is not to defend the rights of criminals or to mock the pain of their victims.  It is rather to defend a philosophy of order that compels us to retain our humanity even when we have to deal with the barbaric acts of fellow human beings who have gone astray.  It is also to remind us of the substantive distinction between initiatives in support of reform and initiatives in support of public image.

There is another aspect to these media presentations that is disturbing.  Those who have followed the well-publicized police operations after the president sounded the call for a “strong republic” may have noticed that almost all the suspected criminals paraded before the media seem to come from the lower classes of our society. They are obviously the foot soldiers of crime.  Pirated compact discs have been hauled out of warehouses by the hundreds of thousands in the past few weeks but no big-time manufacturer has been arrested by the police or presented to the president.  Illegal gambling dens have been raided but none of the big-time financiers who run these operations and who are known to the public have been apprehended.

The government has announced that more than 300 establishments have failed to remit value-added tax (VAT) payments, and they will soon be charged in court.  Tax evasion is a criminal offense, but no tax-evader from the upper classes has ever been singled out for public humiliation.  A number of prominent politicians and business personalities are owners of the notorious Independent Power Producers (IPPs) that pulled some of the most shameless deals in our nation’s history.  None of them has been arrested or presented to the media.  For that matter, has any big-time smuggler ever been arrested in recent years?  Their offense may be construed as plunder and is definitely more injurious to the national welfare than the petty crimes of the poor.

Yet unless the president begins to present criminal suspects from the ranks of the elite, her claim to toughness as the country’s chief lawenforcer will be met with skepticism.  After all, tax evasion, tax diversion, smuggling, illegal gambling, plunder, and the billion-peso trade on illegal drugs are not the domain of working class criminals. They are rather the preserve of those who already enjoy enormous political influence and wealth.  The top bosses of these deviant domains also happen to be, not surprisingly, the biggest contributors to electoral campaigns.  Their arrest and conviction will provide the biggest boost to the rule of law in our society.

A strong republic is not built by power puff press conferences but by the quiet and steady professionalization of state agencies and the entrenchment of a culture of law.


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