Undermining the rule of law

What makes the law in a modern society a trustworthy arbiter of what is right and what is wrong is the consistency of its application and procedures.  This is what guarantees the attainment of its basic societal function — the stabilization of normative expectations.

Without normative stability, contracts will have no binding effect outside the tacit understanding of the directly involved parties.  Society’s other function systems — education, the mass media, science, the family, religion, the economy, etc. — will be hard-pressed to secure for themselves the conditions necessary for their respective operations. People will seek redress for their grievances elsewhere.

So important is the law to the functioning of modern society that its autonomy must be protected. It has to be insulated from the demands and whims especially of those who wield political power or have the means to buy anything. To allow the legal system to be “weaponized” by politics, or  “commodified” by the market, is to undermine its capacity to bind modern society together.

Beyond the issue of the threat to press freedom signified by the successive legal troubles that have been heaped upon the digital news portal Rappler and its chief executive officer Maria Ressa, the urgent question we face today is the autonomy and institutional integrity of the legal system itself.

Maria was arrested last Feb. 13 for cyberlibel, an offense punishable by the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. The supposed libelous report was published on Rappler seven years ago, a good four months before the law was enacted. Maria neither wrote nor edited the report in question. She was charged as CEO of the news organization. The arresting officers came for her after the courts had closed for the day, which meant she had to spend the night in detention until she could file bail the following morning. She was the principal target. The arresting agents showed no pressing need to take custody of the report’s author, who voluntarily submitted himself to the authorities two days later so he could file bail. Previous to this, Maria has had to post bail several times in a span of two months in connection with tax evasion cases lodged against her.

With the advent of the Duterte presidency, the entire justice system appears to have willfully subordinated itself to the logic and tempo of Dutertismo, shamelessly taking its cues from the undisciplined pronouncements of the strongman and doing everything to please him.

Rappler and Ressa are only the latest victims of this brazen display of political dominance that is calculated to teach them a lesson they won’t forget. Before them, there’s Sen. Leila de Lima, a staunch critic of Mr. Duterte’s bloody drug war. For daring to investigate him when he was Davao City kingpin, and for holding him accountable for the activities of the so-called Davao Death Squad, the feisty senator has languished in detention for two years now. As incredible as it seems, the charges against her are supported mainly by testimonies of convicted felons detained in the New Bilibid Prison.  Three courts dutifully found probable cause and issued separate warrants for her arrest.

Then there is former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who drew Mr. Duterte’s ire after she admonished him to refrain from publicly shaming judges who landed in his infamous drug list.  In courteous language, she had requested him to let the high court investigate members of the bench.  The President publicly excoriated her for interfering in his duties as chief executive.  In a move that was as surreal as it was laughable, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a quo warranto petition questioning Sereno’s right to occupy her post for allegedly failing to submit all the documentation required of nominees for the office. She was subsequently removed from the Court by a majority of her own colleagues.

Of course, there is Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, another undaunted critic of Mr. Duterte. Prosecutors from the Department of Justice filed petitions in two separate courts seeking the revival of the cases of rebellion and mutiny against him, which had been previously dropped by virtue of the amnesty granted him years back. They argued that since his amnesty application could not be found, the amnesty granted to him was void from the start. One judge promptly dismissed the petition after the former military officer showed a video of him filing his application and presented the person who actually received the application. But another judge thought otherwise.  Trillanes was arrested and had to post bail.

After the President repeatedly cursed the Philippine Daily Inquirer for its reports on the drug war, the newspaper’s owners, the Prieto family, found themselves summarily evicted from the land they had been leasing from a government agency.  They are also being investigated for tax evasion in connection with their other businesses.

It is pretty much the same story with regard to the broadcast network ABS-CBN.

Mr. Duterte has accused the station of biased reporting and failing to air some TV ads he had already paid for during the 2016 election campaign.  He has publicly vowed to block the renewal of the network’s franchise.

Political vendetta is not new in our culture.  Some presidents are simply incapable of rising to the level of statesmanship demanded by their office. Nothing seems more gratifying to them than to see their critics and perceived enemies bend a knee or suffer in silence. This is not political will but the pettiness of tyrants.  It must be resolutely resisted.