Sisyphus’ Lament

Media, Leonen win martial law extension

JAKARTA — Media misframing of the martial law debate and its hyping of Justice Marvic Leonen’s dissent clearly won martial law’s extension. The letters on the sides of news reports on Congress’ joint session last July 22, read vertically, spell out “Hail Hydra!” a la Pete Lacaba.

It is unprecedented to give more prominence to what lightning protesters chanted than what Sen. Franklin Drilon asked, the opposition’s senior statesman and one of his generation’s most brilliant lawyers.


It is unprecedented for media to betray unfamiliarity — after 60 days! — with the issues that underpin our post-Edsa democracy’s defining debate.

Drilon faced off against Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, the administration’s second best lawyer, after Leonen. He raised the Constitution’s longstanding requirement for “actual” rebellion to declare martial law. “Imminent” danger of rebellion was intentionally deleted.


He asked whether there is an “actual” rebellion Mindanao-wide when only four out of 20 Marawi City barangays remain occupied and the President’s request for extension only mentions 10 of 27 provinces.

Drilon drew three key points from Medialdea. First, there are numerous allied groups across Mindanao. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana later pointed to hundreds of reinforcements from the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu and Basilan and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Maguindanao.

Second, drugs fund the Mautes. Drilon questioned the logic: “If we can extend martial law to illegal drug syndicates, where else can we extend it?”

Third, the New People’s Army is outside martial law. Action against them is under the normal “calling out” power to deploy the armed forces.

Drilon pressed that sympathizers or drug financiers outside Marawi are not an “actual” rebellion. Sen. Tito Sotto stopped him as his four minutes were up.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros asked point blank what specific powers are available only after declaring martial law. She was unsatisfied by Solicitor General Jose Calida’s answer in the Supreme Court that it adds none and was only the “calling out” power on steroids.

Medialdea answered that it becomes easier for the government to make warrantless arrests for rebellion, control the movement of civilians and the imposition of curfews. Hontiveros rebutted — and Medialdea’s side accepted — that all these can be done under existing powers, without martial law. Medialdea said it is easier, a fair response.


Incidentally, for all the media attention invested in Leonen’s dissent, its central arguments were not raised in the joint session.

Lorenzana also welcomed the Commission on Human Rights ensuring troops behave.

The key insight is that our generals, albeit very professional, are unsure of martial law’s legal definition. And they emphasize that courts, local governments and Congress itself remain functioning.

Medialdea, like Calida, accepts that martial law confers no new powers. He appears satisfied with a symbolic boost. The Supreme Court has ruled that the commander in chief may issue declarations with symbolic but no legal effect. This was the Supreme Court approach to past declarations of “state of rebellion” and “state of national emergency.” And the Supreme Court recognized martial law was declared in 2009 in Maguindanao but never implemented.

And despite administration officials’ colorful statements, one must watch what orders Medialdea actually signs, as these have adhered to the Constitution.

Lorenzana is an honorable soldier and Medialdea is an honorable lawyer. The opposition did their duty and asked the right questions.

Sadly, the public could not appreciate the crucial answers in the long awaited opportunity to confront martial law’s top officials in a joint session. For 60 days, media focused on the wrong issues. The public does not even know martial law’s definition and how it applies to civilian government, not military operations.

Critics cite Queen Amidala: “So this is how democracy dies. With thunderous applause.” Try “a whiff of boredom,” given how the crucial joint session became a nonevent.

React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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TAGS: 17th Congress, Delfin Lorenzana, Franklin Drilon, Marawi siege, Marvic Leonen, Media, Mindanao martial law, Oscar Franklin Tan, Risa Hontiveros, Salvador Medialdea, Sisyphus’ Lament, Supreme Court
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