Television against violence

The arguments against allowing the mass media, particularly television, to do live reports of courtroom proceedings are well understood.  Live reports of testimonies and material evidence, unfiltered by legal norms of admissibility, may lead the public to prejudge a case.  The sheer presence of television cameras inside the courtroom can affect the flow of the trial and alter the demeanor of the judge, lawyers, and witnesses.  But, all these considered, the long-term positive effects that a televised trial of the Maguindanao case promises far outweigh the injury that the accused may suffer in the process.

This view is premised on an understanding of what it takes for Maguindanao and other similarly situated places in the country to make the transition to a less violent social order.  The presence of the military in these provinces is not a permanent solution.  The residents of Maguindanao, especially those from the ruling families, must see for themselves that the era of warlords, impunity, and impulsive violence is indeed coming to an end.

The trial will give them the chance to understand what it means to live under the rule of law, rather than under the rule of strongmen.  It will show them that justice is not an abstract ideal but an accessible good, that the Ampatuan reign of terror is over, and that its replacement is not another warlord with a different family name but a new social order.  A televised trial could be an object lesson in the necessity of non-violent politics not just for the Ampatuans who have been dislodged, but, as well, for the Mangudadatus who have just been installed. They have to be told that this is not about them and their personal antagonisms; this is about a nation wanting to consolidate its rule and contain violence in its territory.

It is perhaps worth remembering that more than half of those who perished in the Maguindanao massacre were media people.  They died while lending their presence to an effort to pre-empt violence in the electoral process.  The least we could do to honor their memory is to allow media not only to help ensure the transparency of the judicial process, but to keep the problem of warlordism and organized violence alive in the public mind.

Just because we are able to hold regular elections and to replace those who govern us, we may sometimes be led to believe that ours is a democratic society.  We know better than that, of course.  What we have in reality is a “limited access” social order that pivots around the rule of a few powerful families, who have implicitly agreed among themselves to abide by certain rules in the interest of containing violence.  Under these circumstances, political and economic competition is governed by rules and is mediated by organizations.  It is thereby less personal and more institutional.

The transition to a modern “open access” society does not occur overnight. It begins within the old society itself from the moment elites agree with one another to contain the use of violence because it works against their own interests in the long term. This is the thesis of Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast in their book “Violence and Social Orders.” (2009)

In many ways, Philippine society has been undergoing this transition to modernity since independence.  We are not quite there yet, but in both the economic and political spheres, we are today seeing more new players who do not come from the traditional elites.  This is not the case, however, in some parts of the country like Maguindanao where the decline of the old royal families only paved the way for the emergence of a new breed of warlords sponsored by Manila politicians. The coddling of the Ampatuans by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo replicated the model that Marcos had used to install the so-called “Magic Eight” leaders that ruled Sulu in the 1970s. These warlords received money, guns, protection, and control of land and trade.  In return they delivered the votes.

The same arrangement existed in Maguindanao — until the fateful November 23 massacre.  The reign of the Ampatuans would have remained undisturbed had the clan’s patriarch acceded to the wish of the Mangudadatu family, who were their allies, to have a share in the administration of the province.  But Andal Ampatuan Sr. would not even hear of it.  He had other plans that would not entail sharing power in Maguindanao with another family.  As a result, the clan took personal offense when Toto Mangudadatu persisted with his plan to run for governor of the province.  Encouraged by his own connections to the party in power in Manila, and by the fact that Ms Arroyo, the Ampatuans’ chief patron, was ending her term as president – the young politician wanted the matter settled at the level of the party.

The tragedy might have been avoided if Ms Arroyo had used the considerable influence she wielded in her party to work out an accommodation.  There is information that her intervention was actually sought, but that she chose not to do anything.  She was very careful not to incur the ire of the powerful Ampatuans who had served her well, and who knew first hand how she won the 2004 presidential election.

A nation does not make the transition to a democracy by simply staging elections.  It does so by nurturing an informed and organized citizenry that dares to stand up to violence. A good way to start is by demonstrating the supremacy of the law over the fearsome individuals who continue to dominate little fiefdoms like Maguindanao.  That is what a televised trial of the Ampatuans can achieve.