De Lima offers double standard on media access | Inquirer Opinion
Analysis

De Lima offers double standard on media access

The impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona has crystallized into four issues after eight weeks of hearings of the Senate impeachment court.

1.      The vindictiveness of the Aquino administration’s action to unseat Corona as Chief Justice.

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2.      The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to redistribute Hacienda Luisita, the social and economic base of the Aquino family, to its farm workers.

3.      The ruthless deployment of the state’s coercive powers behind the campaign to convict and annihilate Corona personally.

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4.      The interventions of various forces that tend to undermine the fairness and credibility of the trial and highlight the heavy-handed exercise of state powers by President Aquino to subjugate an independent and coequal branch of government, the judiciary, unseen since Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972.

Empirically speaking, the President has achieved the domination of the executive and the legislative branches without having to declare martial law.

This dominance of the executive branch has alarmed sensitive political observers, both in the legal circles and in the academic community.

Over the past two weeks, the battle for public opinion, the main forum on which the Aquino administration is waging its crush-Corona blitz, has viciously intensified outside the premises of the Senate impeachment court in which the trial is being conducted with due process under the rule of law.

As the trial progressed, the overwhelming power of the state to prosecute and browbeat was brought to bear on the subjects of the vindictiveness of the head of state who were accused of blocking its goal of eradicating corruption blamed on the previous regime and holding its high officials accountable to the people in an inquisitorial witchhunt.

Conduct unbecoming

On March 8, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, former chair of the Commission on Human Rights, shed off all vestiges of impartiality in the administration of justice when she denounced Corona  for “acting like a politician” by defending  himself in the media ahead of his turn to defend himself in the Senate impeachment court, which the  prosecution had  monopolized in the presentation of its case and evidence against the Chief Justice for more than two months from January to February.

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De Lima said Corona’s move to take his case to the media was “conduct unbecoming of the country’s top jurist.”

“He’s not supposed to be a politician,” she lectured when talking to reporters. “He is the highest official of the judiciary, which ought to be completely nonpartisan.”

She said Corona’s position required him to be “devoid of any political and partisan elements.”

This was the same De Lima who months ago before the trial started flagrantly disobeyed the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order (TRO) on the hold-departure order issued by the Department of Justice.

The order prevented former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from traveling abroad to seek medical treatment on the grounds that her departure would allow her to evade trial on charges of alleged corruption that were being prepared against her.

De Lima was severely criticized in legal circles for defying the TRO and acting as a “super Supreme Court” for overturning the court’s decision.

Dirty tricks

In granting interviews to radio journalists, Corona said he appeared before television and radio programs to answer allegations hurled against him by the prosecution and by Ana Basa, his wife’s first cousin, concerning a long-running family dispute over inheritance.

The accusations were made in newspaper reports, which suspiciously came to light a few days before defense lawyers  were set to present their own evidence in the impeachment trial. The newspaper stories on the property dispute of his wife’s family sought to bring dirty linen before the public.

This raised questions on whether the disclosure was relevant to the charges against Corona in the articles of impeachment or part of the dirty tricks operations against him.

Corona denied the prosecution’s claim that he was engaging in a “defense by publicity.” He noted some members of the prosecution team of the House of Representatives, which impeached him, had attacked him even before the  impeachment trial began on Jan. 16.

If Corona’s move to defend himself in the media before his formal defense in the Senate, is “defense by publicity,” the carpet-bombing of the Chief Justice in the media with derogatory information against him by the government spearheaded by the President himself may also be termed “offense by publicity.”

When Corona fell back to the media to answer the voluminous output of pretrial demolition charges dumped by the government on the media, he was actually counteracting the government’s overwhelming advantages in the hugely lopsided conflict between the executive and the judiciary.

Equal access imperative

Corona was turning the tables against the administration at its own game and was using trial by publicity.

If the administration was using the media to demonize and vilify Corona to influence the impeachment court to convict him, why can’t he also use the media to present his side?

The government has no monopoly of access to independent media. In an independent press worthy of its claims to be fair and free from government propaganda or censorship, media are bound to give equal access to citizens being prosecuted/persecuted by an all-powerful government, which has denounced them for obstructing or sabotaging actions proclaimed to be in pursuance of the policy of ridding public office of graft and corruption.

In the battle for public opinion, the media have now become the critical and pivotal arena on which the guilt or innocence of Corona will be decided.

In a broader sense, the issue of independence of the judiciary from executive attacks and attempts at subjugation is at stake.

Media responsibility

This conflict has thrust on media the responsibility of serving as the level playing field to ensure a fair and just trial, which is the constitutional entitlement of every citizen of the republic.

When the justice secretary deplored Corona’s decision to seek sanctuary in the right to reply through a free media, she was offering a double standard on access to media—in which government is argued to have preference while excluding targets of government prosecution, vendetta and political witchhunt.

De Lima, in an act of absolutist partisanship, conveniently ignored the fact since Day One of the trial, the President has  used all the powers of incumbency and a near monopoly of access to media in a public campaign to argue his case before the people outside the premises of the impeachment court.

She is offering a dangerous doctrine of giving monopoly to use of trial by publicity to a regime that has demonstrated little tolerance for due process of law.

This  doctrine has to be rejected emphatically.

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, corona impeachment, judiciary, Leila de Lima, Media, politics, Renato corona, Senate, Supreme Court
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