Instead of turning a bad thing into a good thing, acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra did exactly the opposite: he turned what was already a bad thing into something worse.
From the way he keeps smiling at the cameras, he looks as if he’s gained something from the whole wretched mess. But it’s certainly not the improvement of his public image or that of the government he serves. The widespread public cynicism over the capacity of the so-called justice system to do justice to those who’ve been aggrieved, as expressed in various ways by those familiar with the role of the Ampatuans in the so-called victory of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004 and of her candidates for the Senate in 2007, is now universal. (The results of a survey on which government agency the public trusts the least should be interesting. )
Agra has also succeeded in creating a firestorm of outrage directed not only against himself, but also against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. If Agra’s boss thought that only her henchman would attract the lightning bolts of criticism and protest over the order to drop two of the Ampatuans from multiple murder charges in connection with the November 23 massacre of 57 people, she has another think coming. Expect Agra’s caper to add to the continuing slide of Arroyo’s already subterranean approval ratings, although she cares about that about as much as a tarantula cares about its prey.
But what’s ironic is that some Filipinos did give the justice system the benefit of the doubt last November, and many of those Filipinos were journalists and media practitioners. If they didn’t they wouldn’t have gone to the justice system for redress, but to the streets or elsewhere straightaway.
In the first place it was journalists who helped the government get the facts about the massacre right — the police were contaminating the crime scene by handling the bodies every which way, so there was little help from that direction — by sending fact-finding teams to Maguindanao almost immediately after that terrible event.
Despite their maddening experience with official indifference and incompetence, and, in some cases, partisanship for the suspects in the arrest and prosecution of the killers of journalists since 2001, some journalist groups also fielded private prosecutors to help government prosecutors do their jobs. These groups have also worked with government prosecutors by providing whatever information they could so a credible case could be assembled against the people accused of involvement in the murders.
Some journalist and media advocacy groups even assumed such government tasks as providing immediate humanitarian aid and scholarships for the families and children of the survivors. Through their lawyers and by providing funds to fly the relatives to Manila so they can attend hearings, the same groups are still helping in the prosecution of the alleged murderers of the 32 journalists killed
The way the country’s leading journalists have comported themselves during the many scandals and crises the Arroyo government has generated suggests that the Philippine press — or at least the better part of it — is not so much into undermining the government, but in trying to make things work as they should. Their relationship to the government only seems adversarial; in reality they recognize the crucial role of government in the shaping of the country’s present and future. It’s not the press but the Arroyo government and such of its minions as Agra who have been recalcitrant in implementing the country’s laws, for example, or in finding creative ways around them, and in concealing what they’re doing from the media and the public.
The same attitude has been evident in past administrations. All governments lie and try to conceal wrongdoing. But the officials of no other administration in memory has been as deliberately non-transparent, non-accountable, blithely abusive of power, contemptuous of public opinion, and hostile to the press as Arroyo and her officials.
Although the administration is crawling with similar creatures, Arroyo election lawyer Agra is a near-perfect example of non-accountability and smug indifference to public opinion.
Interviewed by the print and broadcast media, Agra betrayed the most minimal understanding of official accountability to the citizenry he’s supposed to serve. To questions from the media meant to solicit an explanation for his order to drop the multiple murder charges against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan, the most Agra could say was that it was his prerogative to review the recommendations of DOJ prosecutors.
He used the word “prerogative” so often it was obvious it was both his excuse and his conceit. It wasn’t the public’s reaction he was concerned with, but Malacanang’s. He repeatedly said it was Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s opinion that mattered to him; it apparently never occurred to him that public opinion weighs heaviest on public officials in societies that claim to be democratic.
But having reached the limits of their patience, their outrage relentlessly aggravated not only by such acts as Agra’s but also by his indifference to the public and its demand for justice, the citizenry could justly argue that what obtains in the Philippines is not a democracy but a plutocracy, the self-serving minions of which eagerly pander to the whims of those who rule it so they may themselves enter the exclusive circles of the powerful. Agra probably has millions of reasons for acting the way he did, and for practically telling the entire country and all Filipinos that their opinions about anything don’t matter in the least. But none of those millions have anything to do with legality, and least of all with justice.