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Sisyphus’ Lament

How the media misrepresent the Torre case

MEDIA COVERAGE of the dry third Torre de Manila hearing at the Supreme Court on Aug. 11 latched on to Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s forceful pronouncement that the Torre appears not to have violated any law, and one cannot punish what no law prohibits. The latest headlines contrast starkly with reports hyping the case in past months.

Carpio reiterated the right to property plus due process, the right to be told exactly what law was violated. The Constitution says we must conserve cultural heritage but this is not “self-executing.” Specific laws must implement this general policy statement, which does not even mention sight lines. The heritage law mentions “physical integrity” but Rizal Park was never touched (as Solicitor General Florin Hilbay and letter writer Magno Simbulan [8/15/15] will disagree). Carpio summed up that all other freedoms are impaired if a government could stop an act not prohibited by law.

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Carpio is the darling of judiciary beat reporters and social media. He is concise, lethal and eminently quotable, typically asking just one question in plain language that destroys a petitioner’s case (and makes headlines). He has both the intellectual firepower and seniority not to bother with any pretense of masking exactly where he stands.

It is thus frustrating when even Carpio is misquoted. In the first Torre hearing, he summed up that the petitioner’s closest thing to a legal theory presented factual questions. The high court has no jurisdiction to try facts. It does not hear witnesses and cross-examinations. This is why he practically threw out the case.

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Certain reports focused on how the petitioners’ lawyer William Jasarino annoyed the justices in claiming that the trial courts would be too slow. There is a huge difference between annoyance and a court—even the high court—being legally unable to hear a case for lack of jurisdiction.

In contrast to Carpio, Justice Francis Jardeleza perplexes reporters with his awe-inspiring ability to argue both sides against himself. He spent the second hearing single-handedly reversing all his initial questions for four hours. Further, Jardeleza favors the deadpan. It is hard for a casual observer to tell whether he is citing hornbook doctrine or a stretched interpretation, or even whether or not the questions of a reaction-less Jardeleza were successfully parried.

Some coverage of the second hearing focused on Jardeleza’s tangent on corporate risk management. These ignored both his aggressive interpretation of the word “conserve” in the Constitution, which he suggested encapsulates international heritage preservation standards, and Torre lawyer Victor Lazatin’s rebuttals based on more textbook doctrine. In the third hearing, he posited that the National Commission for Culture and the Arts had an implicit power to order the Torre to stop. Lazatin responded convincingly that the explicit law empowers a different agency (the National Historical Commission) and the NCCA’s own rules cover other types of sites, not Rizal Park.

The media can focus on Justice Marvic Leonen’s folksy asides or seeming shows of emotion more than the issues he explores. After Carpio, Leonen proved the next favorite of the third hearing’s coverage. He hammered Lazatin over the Torre allegedly violating Manila’s zoning ordinance and officers who granted exemptions having no authority to overturn a city council’s ordinance. He asked why construction began ahead of these exemptions.

Reports inexplicably omitted that a 2014 Manila council resolution affirmed all these approvals, one of Lazatin’s main points in his opening speech. Further, Justices Diosdado Peralta and Estela Perlas-Bernabe asked the critical question: whether a simple resolution can supersede the ordinance. Lazatin posited that the city council only needs to express simple approval under the ordinance’s framework. One cannot fairly gauge the ordinance without considering this resolution by the same city council.

To form an informed legal opinion against the Torre, one must understand either the potentially strained legal interpretations or minute details of city approvals on which it would have to be based. To form the opposite opinion, one must understand why all possible laws would not apply as Carpio summarized. But journalists’ rigid definitions of fact versus opinion and fear of editorializing cause inaccuracy and inadvertent bias when reporting on law. For example, many matter-of-fact reports on the first hearing (not the Inquirer’s) critically omitted Jasarino’s repeated admissions that his case had no legal basis. This is akin to a murder suspect confessing on live TV and normal attempts at balanced reporting create the false balance against which Inquirer.net columnist Benjamin Pimentel cautions.

Some reports played up a David-vs-Goliath battle against a stereotypical large, evil corporation but glossed over—in a story about a lawsuit—what law exactly was violated. Others, like those on Leonen’s hammering, took a brief snippet but failed to present its crucial context within a broader point. One report was so tentative that it presented Carpio’s reminder that what is not prohibited by law is typically allowed as a mere opinion, not a basic postulate of democracy.

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The Supreme Court is a “vital national seminar” on our most deeply held values. Coverage of the badly framed Torre case must do better to equip citizens to form an opinion on the muddled free-for-all of constitution, statute, international law, administrative regulation, city ordinance, floor area math, court procedure and propaganda it has become.

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

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TAGS: nation, news, Rizal Park, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Torre de Manila
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