One senator’s issue has become an institutional concern. Two weeks ago, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano said that the Senate ethics committee he chairs was formulating the rules for hearing some six plagiarism cases on its agenda, including one against his sister, Sen. Pia Cayetano. There has been no additional update.
Plagiarism is a serious, global problem, as affirmed by colleagues at the recent Asia Europe Rectors’ Conference in Groningen. Technology and the web have made plagiarism easier to practice, though it rarely has the immediate financial impact of intellectual property rights violations in industry. The Asian Institute of Management now runs major student-written assignments through anti-plagiarism software.
The problem in the Senate caused the country embarrassment as it made the international media, mainly because of Sen. Tito Sotto’s obstinate refusal to admit to any offense or mistake. He dismisses the charge, claiming that “imitation is the greatest form of flattery”—true, perhaps, when the imitator acknowledges and credits the object of flattery. Otherwise, it is thievery, like that committed by imitators of designer sneakers and jeans sold as the genuine brand.
Still struggling with the reproductive health and sin tax bills, senators do not need the distraction of plagiarism cases. The Sotto plagiarism, which had caused the biggest uproar, could have been settled quickly and graciously, as Manny Pangilinan did in what arguably marked one of his classiest moments.
The public does not expect top business or political leaders to write every word of all their speeches. Pangilinan acknowledged the plagiarism, resigned his position in the institution where he delivered the speech, and refused to expose the responsible speechwriters to absolve himself. The issue went away, as did the case against Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria, who apologized for the offense, but still incurred a suspension and an investigation.
The Sotto plagiarism, like vampires, refuses to die, not because of the offense itself but the evident lack of remorse or intent to reform. He apparently believes that any apology diminishes his dignity as a senator of the Republic. The deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance gives the issue the legs to keep running like some Energizer Bunny.
He compounds the disaster by putting up one inane defense after another. He dismisses the source as simply a blogger, but turns the insult on himself. Copying from what he regards as an inferior source only reflects on his judgment. Why would he flatter a mere “blogger” with the supreme compliment of imitation?
Then, he proclaims that he did not plagiarize Bobby Kennedy because he translated the original material into Tagalog. This interpretation would deny writer Frankie Sionil Jose and musical artist Freddie Aguilar the recognition and the royalties derived from the translation of their creative work into foreign languages.
Most recently, Sotto has suggested that he should not be censured for plagiarism because John F. Kennedy was reportedly also a plagiarist. Possibly the worst defense of the guilty, this is also the stuff of kindergarten squabbling: Somebody else did it first and got away with it. Too late now to punish JFK. Let JFK’s defenders deal with the charge, when he is proven to be a serial plagiarist.
His staff, who probably owned to their guilt, should have dutifully thrown themselves on their swords to protect their boss, but dragged him deeper into the muck with their own nonsensical excuses. The purloined materials were already in the web and therefore, in the public domain, and therefore can be freely appropriated by anyone.
The staff did something even worse than landing Sotto in the fire and then failing to douse the flames. Seeking to cleanse themselves and their boss from any stain of wrongdoing, they diverted the dirt to the institution that they serve, dismissing plagiarism as something that routinely happens in Congress.
Surprisingly, the Senate did not rise as a body to repulse the attack on its integrity. The public can only conclude that the institutional silence signified consent to the characterization of the Senate as a den of plagiarists. Even the Senate President ducked the issue, retreating behind the wall of parliamentary immunity.
The lack of timely response strengthens the perception that senators will withhold judgment on questions of right and wrong, unless these directly threaten their individual political agenda or promise some personal advantage. Correcting, let alone punishing, colleagues, however deserving of sanctions, pays no dividends. But withholding censure is a bargaining chip that can later be redeemed.
That Senate Majority Floor Leader Sotto appears clueless about the issue of plagiarism is bad enough. More disturbing is the exposure of a political culture that sacrifices principles to pragmatic concerns and privileges personal above institutional interests. The ethics committee has a chance to prevent the Senate from collaborating in discrediting itself.
But enough already. We have more pressing issues. Let us just remember the plagiarists and their supporters in future elections.
Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.