Foot in mouth
With a spokesperson like Edwin Lacierda, does President Aquino need enemies to cast his administration in a bad light?
Consider Lacierda’s latest foot-in-mouth moment, when he dismissed a contention by the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch that the Aquino administration had been remiss in addressing the growing catalogue of rights violations under its watch. The courts, not Malacañang, are to blame, Lacierda said. “[Now] that cases have been filed in court, obviously the ball is now with the judicial branch of government. And, knowing the separation of powers, I cannot understand why Human Rights Watch would be blaming the Aquino administration or the executive branch for the seemingly slow pace of judicial action. That is something that is within the purview of the judiciary.”
The New York-based watchdog has rightly called Lacierda’s response “uninformed at best, dishonest at worst.” One may also call it arrogant and brazen without being off the mark. Lacierda, after all, should be the first to know that in the matter of Jovito Palparan, for instance, the most high-profile rights abuse case at present, the executive branch has not managed to locate the former general and bring him to court to answer for the kidnapping, illegal detention and subsequent disappearance of two University of the Philippines activists.
Palparan’s defiance of the law—aided, in all probability, by powerful friends and backers in the military—is a continuing embarrassment for the Aquino administration, which has repeatedly vowed to bring him before the bar of justice. Obviously, no court can resolve his case until he is first arraigned and brought before it—a task that law-enforcement authorities have miserably (some say intentionally) failed to do so far. Yet here is Lacierda claiming with a straight face that “the ball is now with the judicial branch of government.”
Or take the case of the witnesses in the summary execution of at least 57 people in Maguindanao in 2009, whose protection and safety are, without question, “within the purview” of the Department of Justice and the National Bureau of Investigation. A former militiaman turned state witness against the Ampatuan clan, Esmail Amil Enog, went missing from the government’s witness protection program and turned up murdered. Another witness, Alijol Ampatuan—a distant relative of the warlord family accused of the massacre—is also missing and now feared dead. Both are victims, if not of the Ampatuans’ continuing reign of terror against their perceived enemies, then of the government’s negligence and ineptness in prosecuting a criminal case, let alone holding it together enough to bring forth a conviction.
This is not the first time Lacierda has put the administration and the President he serves in a bind with his careless words. Recall how he justified giving former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes and other suspects in the murder of environmentalist and radio broadcaster Gerry Ortega the leeway of a few days to surrender, despite the issuance of an immediately executory warrant of arrest: “It’s maybe out of deference for his being a former governor and hopefully that as a government official he will be responsible enough to face the courts and surrender voluntarily.” Needless to say, Reyes remains at large, another big-shot failure of the administration. (Was Lacierda ever called out for speaking out of turn, in effect subverting the court by invalidating the Ortega warrant with his own interpretation of its effectivity? We don’t know. This is apparently how he has grown more reckless by the day in formulating the President’s position.)
It’s long past due for Mr. Aquino to review how effectively he and his agenda are served by his communications team, which has failed to put across his administration’s core message and narrative with coherence, consistency or inspiration. He can start by looking dispassionately at the performance of his spokesperson, who may be the most loyal, dedicated and trustworthy surrogate there is, but whose words have often left the public confounded and dumbfounded.
Governing is tough enough as it is. The President should consider how worse it becomes, both for him and the nation, when what he’s trying to say and do is needlessly lost in official translation.