NOTHING is impossible, said President Benigno Aquino III last Monday during his third State of the Nation Address, while demonstrating in the same speech that certain things are just not possible in an Aquino SONA.
Apparently it’s not possible for Mr. Aquino to mention “Human Rights violations,” “extrajudicial killings,” “Freedom of Information,” “Ampatuan Massacre,” “the killing of journalists” or even “Reproductive Health” in his address. And it’s probably not because of the limitations of his vocabulary.
It’s likely that his steering clear of these phrases was driven by a policy option. His not mentioning freedom of information, for example, could kill the much-delayed and much misunderstood bill on it that’s still in the House and encourage the passage of those versions that would restrict public and media access to information rather than enhance it. But his refusal to mention human rights violations, extrajudicial killings and the killing of journalists even in passing or as an afterthought won’t make those issues go away.
On the contrary. Because it can’t but send to human rights violators and the killers of journalists and political activists the message that his administration is not particularly concerned with either human rights or press freedom, his not mentioning them could even guarantee that these problems will remain with us for some time to come. The violations will continue, and so will the killing of journalists and activists.
Meanwhile, Mr. Aquino must have thought it a stroke of genius not to mention the RH bill and to instead say something about the need for “responsible parenthood” – the exact same term the throwbacks from the Medieval Age called the bishops of the Catholic Church use, by which they mean sexual abstinence, or, at most, the use of the rhythm method to space pregnancies.
But Aquino’s use of that term led to enough confusion for the advocates of the reproductive health bill to applaud it in the mistaken belief that he had just endorsed the bill, while the same cleric-relics who oppose even the most conservative RH bill version roundly condemned him on the same assumption. The only member of Congress who managed to talk some sense, at least this once, was the Senate’s Vicente Sotto III, whose reasons for opposing the RH bill have ranged from the ridiculous to the absurd. Aquino did not actually endorse the bill, said Sotto, and it was wishful thinking for those who say so that he did.
As far as wishful thinking goes, meanwhile, the coalition campaigning for the passage of a Freedom of Information bill – ironically enough, that’s the third version Malacanang has drafted and forwarded to the House, on which the Senate Bill (SB 3208 ) is based – had earlier written Mr. Aquino urging him to include the FOI bill in his 2012 legislative agenda.
That request apparently fell on deaf ears, most likely because, despite his promise of support for it during the 2010 presidential campaign, Aquino III just can’t abide the idea of a citizenry’s having access to government-held information, despite his having presumably approved the third draft of the FOI bill his communication group put together.
As a result, no one can blame FOI advocates from suspecting that the Palace drafted an FOI bill not to see it through Congress, but to merely defuse criticism over the administration’s seeming antipathy for one. Meanwhile, some supposed advocates of transparency in the House of Representatives have cobbled together an FOI bill with a right of reply rider, despite widespread and sound opposition from much of the news media to an ROR bill or to such a rider.
We can only presume that Mr. Aquino can’t abide even making a presidential statement, much less taking presidential action, on the imperative to put a stop to the human rights violations that are continuing in his administration. These violations consist of, among other crimes, the abduction, enforced disappearance and murder of environmentalists, political activists, human rights workers, and those other individuals involved in confronting such community issues as illegal logging, land-grabbing, corruption and abuse of power.
In this very same paradise of possibilities, 17 journalists and media workers have been killed since July 2010, at least eight of them because of their work, which, as in past killings, consisted of exposing corruption and criminal activity in the same communities where human rights workers, environmental advocates and other activists are also being killed.
Meanwhile, three years after the worst case of both political murders and the killing of journalists, the Ampatuan Massacre, occurred, the trial of the accused planners and perpetrators of that outrage is moving glacially through the court system.
Mr. Aquino’s principal spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, has correctly blamed the delay on the lawyers’ Bible (it’s almost as old), the Rules of Court, which has permitted both the prosecution and the defense to file the numerous petitions and motions that are hampering the progress of the trial. But he did not mention, when responding to accusations of executive department inaction on human rights violations from such groups as the US- based Human Rights Watch, that foot-dragging by executive department agencies like the Department of Justice has also hobbled the prosecution.
One such instance is the failure of the DOJ so far to include in the Witness Protection Program the family of a Maguindanao policeman who was privy to the events before and during the Massacre and who could therefore be a state witness. Fears for the safety of his family, the members of which are being watched by unidentified men, have led the policeman to rethink his decision to be a witness for the prosecution.
And yet it should be evident to anyone by now – it should have been immediately obvious in 2009 – that the speedy and credible resolution of the Ampatuan Massacre trial is crucial not only to ending the culture of impunity, but also to the need to stop election-related violence. The same demonstration that wrong-doing will be punished is as crucial to ending the human rights violations Mr. Aquino, despite his family’s having been a victim of the same outrage (and about which he again reminded us last Monday), seems determined to ignore.
Although addressing court delays will require judicial reforms including changes in the Rules of Court, such other steps as assuring the safety of state witnesses are immediately doable by a pro-active commitment to the speedy resolution of the trial of those accused of planning and carrying out the massacre.
Still and all, and despite himself, Mr. Aquino is right: nothing is really impossible, provided the political authority has the will to achieve it in behalf of the people of this Republic. Nothing is possible otherwise.