The Inquirer’s list

I cringe whenever I hear people say that lists of names, documents, receipts, photographs, etc. speak for themselves. What they are claiming, in effect, is that there is only one way of looking at these records, that the meanings they convey are the same for everyone, and that if you can’t see them the same way they are supposed to be seen, then you’re either stupid, naive, or in denial.

Nothing speaks for itself. Everything acquires meaning only through interpretation.  And the work of interpretation or recognition always draws on tacit assumptions that make it possible to view a thing in its context. That is the kind of satisfaction we express, for example, when we are able to finally “connect the dots.” Prior to this, we see only the dots, but we are unsure what to make of them.

That’s how I would prefer to treat the digital files that the Inquirer found in the hard disk drive of the personal computer purportedly belonging to Benhur Luy. They are dots in a complex landscape. Benhur’s parents brought these files to the Inquirer in April 2013, asking the paper’s help in exposing the illegal racket that Benhur’s employer, Janet Lim Napoles, was supposedly engaged in. These files cannot and do not speak for themselves. To understand what they mean, one has to know—among other things—who created or compiled them, from what sources, and for what purpose, and how they were actually used or consulted in the course of somebody’s everyday work.

I have not personally seen these files, but they appear to me to be idiosyncratic—meaning they were not organized according to a standard system like an accounting ledger.  Someone therefore has to decipher or decode them. I think the best person would have to be Benhur Luy himself, the one who kept and updated the files. Without Benhur’s interpretive guidance, any attempt to draw meaning from these files would have to be highly speculative.  Those whose names are mentioned in connection with this “Napoles racket” have every right to demand to know the context in which their names have been mentioned, or to offer a different context—other than that of participating in a “racket”—that would account for the inclusion of their names in the list.

Unfortunately for our legislators, the public, at this point, is ready to believe the worst about the nation’s politicians. The painful reality is that, in the eyes of the public, all those whose names have been mentioned are probably guilty in some way or other unless they can prove their innocence. This, of course, goes against a well-established principle in law. But then, in politics, perception is everything. People will believe what they want to believe.

For the few decent politicians who have faithfully served the country, whose names have been mentioned in one list or another, a simple denial of wrongdoing might be sufficient. For others, nothing less than a full account of how their names landed in the list might be necessary. But, for our usual type of politicians, none of this may really matter.  They lie secure in the thought that, come election time, most Filipinos will cast their votes in total defiance of what the law, the media, common morality, or notions of good governance tell them. Indeed, there is little we can do about these people, except maybe to shame them during election.

It is for the corrupt politicians in our midst—those who have routinely betrayed the public trust in the arrogant belief that their power and money can shield them from the law—that we must reserve our anger, our antagonism, and our vigilance. Their indictment for plunder and graft and corruption is just the start of a very long process. They will hire the best defense lawyers money can buy, who are capable of making full use of the rights given to accused persons to protect their clients. They will question the imputed meaning of every piece of evidence, and create doubts about the validity of the narratives by which government prosecutors will try to connect the dots.

This will not be a walk in the park for the Ombudsman, on whose shoulders rests the burden of proving the cases against these public officials and putting them in jail. This difficulty is what makes the quiet gathering of evidence, the careful buildup of a case, the protection of witnesses, and the preservation of documents, so essential to securing conviction particularly in high-profile cases.

We prime ourselves for disappointment and cynicism when we expect our prosecutors to take every bit of information that is reported in the media at face value, or, worse, when we unwittingly rush them into filing half-baked charges just to earn public approval. Published information may offer leads, but it may be worthless as evidence in court. I saw names in the Inquirer list of “agents/brokers/conduits” that looked so familiar that I was sure they belonged to the same corrupt group. Still, without the benefit of context, I would not jump to any conclusion. But if Benhur Luy makes these connections, many of us would be able to say if he was telling the truth.

The public’s impatience over the “slow” filing of cases by the Ombudsman is rapidly growing. One can see how this springs from a long history of institutional distrust. Yet, if we are to get anywhere, we need to suppress this impatience—counterintuitively—by acquainting ourselves with the work of the Department of Justice, the Ombudsman, the courts, and the investigative agencies like the National Bureau of Investigation. Their job is far from easy. It is not just to tell a plausible story of corruption; it is to tell one that is powerful enough to convict.