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Reenacting Leila, banning Mar

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Interior Secretary Mar Roxas’ initiative to ban the presentation of suspects without their consent has largely gone unremarked. I happen to think, however, that it is a genuine advance in civil liberties, and may even help improve police performance.

To be sure, it is long overdue; the police practice of presenting suspects in a public setting, with members of the media usually standing in for the public, started many decades ago. Pushing the ban through must have taken considerable political will: There is no groundswell of popular support for the change, and the country’s police culture sees the tradition not only as unproblematic, but indeed as a necessary marking of a procedural milestone.

When an arrest is made, isn’t it only logical to make the identity of the suspects known? Surely the presentation of suspects is a form of accountability. The police (or the National Bureau of Investigation, or any other government agency with the power to take suspects into custody) have the responsibility to let the people know who they have in their safekeeping; at the same time, the presentation of suspects, especially when they are seen in public wearing the uniform of detainees, reinforces the presenting authorities’ view that the suspects are in fact guilty.

But this is a civil liberties issue; the right of all suspects to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law should not be sacrificed at the altar of expedience, convenience, ideology (take your pick) or by the burning need to score popularity points.

“We need to balance the right of the public to know alongside the rights of the accused,” Roxas said in a statement announcing the ban, which took effect last week. He got that right.

But the ban is also a governance issue. For too long, the police have considered a case solved once the prosecutor files the appropriate charges before the appropriate court. Regardless of the prospects of conviction, or even of the quality of the evidence, once the case is turned over to the prosecutor, the police record the crime as solved.

Again, there is a certain logic to this; by and large, police work ends when the case goes before a judge. But years of indifferent use or even abuse have turned the practice into a cynical kind of police theater. The mechanics of presentation all too often serve as a substitute for police performance: As long as suspects are presented, the thinking goes, then the authorities must be doing their job. If mere presentation is disallowed, however, then maybe the focus will shift from seeming to doing.

* * *

The public reenactment of a crime under investigation is another longstanding police practice that infringes on civil liberties and impacts on governance.

Reenactments done in private or behind agency doors, away from outsiders and reporters, are a different matter; there is nothing wrong with them. Reenacting a crime, after all, is one crucial method investigators use to test their theories. But before a court of law passes judgment on the case, they are exactly that: mere theories, versions of possible reality.

Reenacting a theory about a crime in public, in full view of the cameras, privileges that theory without benefit of trial; in fact, well before it. When Justice Secretary Leila de Lima viewed a reenactment of the killing of the so-called Atimonan 13, with the media in tow, she was not only watching the NBI’s hypothesis about who-shot-who being tested at the very site of the crime; she was also watching that hypothesis take hold in the public imagination.

Millions of people saw that reenactment on TV, on the Internet, or on front-page newspaper photos; whether the theory holds water or not, many will have already perceived it as reality. The intention behind it may have been genuinely public-spirited; shouldn’t the test of theory be open to the public? But the effect, it seems to me, is to short-circuit the administration of justice.

Perhaps Roxas and De Lima can agree to also place greater controls on the use of reenactment drama.

* * *

Prompted by Michael Tan’s recent praise of YouTube, let me say something about my own YouTube obsessions: I have learned to mine it for movies old and new. Some are silent-movie old; I am especially fond of Buster Keaton’s kind of deeply thought-through physical comedy, and think that “The General,” often included in the list of the world’s greatest movies, is touched throughout by genius. Other movies are relatively new; I’ve seen, for instance, at least three by the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami.

Side by side Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” (my favorite of his many masterpieces), one can find our own Gerardo de Leon. For example, De Leon’s “Noli me Tangere,” from 1961, is available in 10 parts or instalments (the cutting up of the movie due, I am certain, to the vagaries of uploading). I have seen the first three uploads, roughly the first 25 minutes of the movie, and they are a revelation: The opening scene at Capitan Tiago’s sets the tone: It has been wonderfully re-imagined, with almost-Tolstoyan dancing, fast-paced dialogue and the fittingly early introduction of Doña Victorina, and yet, overall, it remains faithful to the narrative arc Rizal himself traced.

A brother-in-law of mine taught me the secret to enjoying movies on YouTube on a relatively slow Internet connection; once the clip starts, press pause—and then do something else. By the time you’re ready to watch in 30 or so minutes’ time, most of the buffering would have been done.

jnery@inquirer.com.ph/johnnery.wordpress.com

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