Public Lives

The Napoles list

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Much ado is being made over Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s refusal to release the list of legislators that suspected pork barrel mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles allegedly had dealings with. De Lima says that, in due time, she will make the list available to the press. For now, she insists it is her duty to determine if there is factual evidence to support the inclusion of every name on that list.

This reticence has not been received well by the public. Many accuse De Lima of wanting to “sanitize” the list, which Napoles had offered as part of her affidavit, so the administration could protect its allies. I personally think the justice secretary is doing the right thing. But, in asking for time to study the list, she is now expected not only to release the complete list but also to comment on the availability of supporting evidence. It might have been easier to release the list without comment. But that would have opened her even more to charges of staging a trial by publicity, for which she is already being pilloried. She is in a double bind: a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t situation.

What we are seeing here is the reality of a society that cannot wait for its legal institutions to discharge their work because the public thinks they are too enmeshed in politics to be objective. This suspicion is certainly not without basis. Its articulation may be society’s way of pressuring its institutions to be honest.  But it has its costs. Government prosecutors tend to rush the preparation of cases to please an impatient public, and later pay for this when defective charges are dismissed on technical grounds. By having to appear in various forums, they may also unwittingly reveal their legal strategy and the crucial evidence they hold, thus giving the accused a glimpse of the arguments.

If we step back and view this practice from a distance, we will find that it is, ironically, the political system itself—with the mass media—that is preventing the legal system from quietly doing its work. Notice how typically, in nearly every celebrated case, at least three forms of inquiry are going on at the same time, sharing witnesses and asking the same questions: first, a talk show or press conference, followed by a congressional investigation, and finally, the least exciting one, a formal hearing in a prosecutor’s office or a courtroom. Without exception, the political overrides the legal.  Need we still ask what has been the root cause of our societal dysfunctions?

Both in scale and in the identities of the people involved, the Napoles case exceeds all previous scandals in political significance. It is natural that different political groups and personalities will ride on it to promote their interests and ambitions. At the very least, they will try to manage the issues in order to insulate themselves from a plague that threatens the entire political class.

Now, more than ever, the mass media and the law need to preserve their autonomy if Philippine society is to gain anything from this crisis. Their first duty is to protect their respective operational codes and criteria from interference by the players of the dominant political system. Unless they are secretly in the employ of politicians, members of the mass media must be able to tell when they are no longer just reporting the news but promoting the political fortunes of some people. Similarly, prosecutors and judges must face up to the daunting challenge of firmly saying no to politicians who may hold the key to their own career advancement. These choices are not easy to make in a society like ours where institutional differentiation is the exception rather than the norm.

Defensive maneuvers in the Napoles scandal are so obvious and so crudely executed that it doesn’t take a political analyst to spot them.  At this point, who stands to gain most from the publication of a long list of pork barrel scammers? Certainly not the justice system, which is already choking with the cases that were filed soon after the first incriminating disclosures were made by the former Napoles employee Benhur Luy and his fellow whistle-blowers. Definitely, the ones who stand to gain the most are the big fish who have been breathing laboriously because their gills are wedged in the law’s net.

It is they who seek to sow doubt in the public discourse: If a majority of our legislators, past and present, have been clients of Napoles, can the practice of receiving pork barrel kickback be so morally reprehensible? If almost every politician in the country has been doing it, would it still be a crime? Is it the act itself that is being punished, or is it the political affiliation of the perpetrator?

When such questions are raised, they call to mind a concept in the sociological theory of deviance known as “techniques of neutralization.” I will discuss this fascinating theory and its relevance to the culture of corruption in another column. Here, it will suffice to make the point that those who are caught with their dirty fingers in the cookie jar typically minimize the gravity of their act by claiming that no one has clean hands.

A list of Napoles clients that includes not just the usual suspects but individuals who project an aura of uprightness would do a lot to draw media attention away from those who have already been indicted. There is a simple reason for this: When traditional politicians steal, that is not news. But if they are caught and punished, that is news. When public figures who personify rare ideals of public service steal, that is shocking news. Their misdeeds do more to undermine public confidence than the crimes of the usually corrupt.

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