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There’s the Rub

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On the face of it, the Supreme Court decision to ban the airing of the Maguindanao massacre trial seems reasonable. “While this court recognizes the freedom of the press and the right to public information…. the rights of the direct parties should not be forgotten. In a clash among these competing interests and in terms of the values the Constitution recognizes, jurisprudence makes it clear that the balance should always be weighed in favor of the accused. Live TV has no place in a criminal trial.”

True enough, you can’t have TV crews routinely roaming the courtrooms covering criminal trials. They’ll be an intrusion, posing no small amount of vexation to the presiding judge. Or imposing no small amount of stress on him or her, compelling them to perform before the public quite apart from having to weigh unperturbedly the evidence at hand. Some may thrive in the attention, others won’t.

But this is no ordinary criminal case. This is the crime of the century. This is a crime not just against the victims and their kin, this is a crime against all Filipinos. In the same way that the torture, “salvaging,” and enforced disappearances of dissidents during martial law was a crime not just against the victims but against the nation. This is a case where the title, “People of the Philippines vs. the Ampatuans,” takes on the most literal meanings.

The reasons for airing the trial are legion.

At the very least, why should it be naturally prejudicial to the Ampatuans? Why should there be a clash of interests? The high court’s argument that it will subvert the principle of the presumption of innocence on the part of the accused, a cardinal principle in law, in fact merely subverts the principle of the presumption of intelligence on the part of the public, a cardinal principle in democracy. The people are not idiots who will act like a lynch mob after being reminded of the atrocity that was the Maguindanao massacre.

Of course they will be furious, or filled with a cold rage, as well they should be. That doesn’t mean it will be unfair to the accused. The point about presumption of innocence to be fair, it is not to be blind. The point about it is to be scrupulous, it is not to be unthinking.

Presumption of innocence merely means keeping an open mind, it doesn’t mean having an empty one. Moral outrage has never been a natural impediment to reason, it has always been a more natural facilitator of it.

The public showed so during the trial of Renato Corona. Social media in particular, the more direct expression of public opinion than the mainstream one, weighed in on the proceedings reasonably responsibly and judiciously. Of course it wasn’t a criminal case, it was an impeachment case, though morally at least, if not legally, there’s something outrageously criminal about the one person the world looks up to as the purveyor of justice purveying instead the opposite. But the verdict there carried as much a life-and-death impact on the accused as that of any criminal case.

At the very most, well:

One, it assures, the way the Corona trial did, that the process or procedure will not be reduced to legalistic calisthenics. It assures, the way the Corona trial did, that it will be decided on the basis of substance and not form, of evidence and not technicality, of law in its best sense and not lokohan in its worst manifestations. It assures, in the way the Corona trial did, that the decision will produce closure and the healing of wounds, and not the rubbing of salt on wounds and raising more questions than answering them.

As with all the other momentous cases in this country, criminal or not, it’s not just the accused that’s on trial here, it’s the courts, too. They stand accused, if implicitly, if by a tradition of corruption and partiality, if by a record of the rich winning and the poor losing, of turning law into an impediment to justice.

Two, this is a trial not just of murder, however multiple, however gruesome, this is a trial of the culture of impunity. Of course the Ampatuans must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But it’s not as if the massacre and mutilation of helpless men and women, most of them media workers, were done with a view to hiding the identities of their perpetrators. They were done with every intention of revealing them to put terror in the hearts of their enemies. The perpetrators of this clearly thought they could get away with it. The people who wreaked this clearly thought they had nothing to fear from God or man, heaven or hell, the law or justice.

If the Ampatuans cannot be proven guilty before Allah, before the courts, before the public—and they have lawyers aplenty to do it for them, quite apart from a vanishing tribe of witnesses—then set them free with our monumental apologies. If not, then put them where they cannot disgrace the human race again.

Three, the need is not just to punish the guilty, or restitute the accused where innocent, which is compelling enough in itself. Matters of justice always are. The need is to remember. The need is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That is a far more compelling, or desperate, need in this forgetful country.

As it is, the heinousness of the massacre is receding from memory. You see that in the lack of interest in the developments about the case. You see that in the lack of outcry over the murders or disappearances, forced or voluntary, of the witnesses. You see that in the lack of concern for the victims’ kin who have been begging heaven and the courts to hasten justice, to no avail. Airing the trial should rekindle it. Airing it should prevent crimes of the century from ever happening again.

Let us do so. We need to remember. We need to understand.

We need to know.


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