Taking lives

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Nothing and no one can bring Leo Echegaray or anyone else wrongfully executed back to life. But it doesn’t mean that nothing can be gained from a public discussion of Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban’s assertion that the Supreme Court erred in upholding the death penalty for Echegaray.

Certainly the Filipino public as well as the anti-crime groups that have been among the chief advocates of capital punishment can gain something from such a discussion. And although the Philippine mass media may deny any complicity, and even pretend total innocence in the “wrongful death” of Echegaray, they are among the sectors that could learn something from a public review of the case and the death penalty issue. But so has the Arroyo regime much to learn from it, despite its new found advocacy as an opponent of the death penalty.

The House of Representatives, taking its cue from Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Easter Sunday commutation of the death sentences of some 1,000 convicts awaiting lethal injection, has passed a bill abolishing the death penalty. The Senate has concurred on the need for abolition, despite its differences with the House. The Philippines will now be among the 87 countries that have so far abolished the death penalty.

But let us remember that while officially abolished, the death penalty–and without the benefit of trials and judicial review–is being implemented outside the justice system with the indifference at least of the Arroyo regime, or its orchestration at most. I am of course referring to the killing of left-wing political activists and journalists.

Despite local protest and international concern and condemnation, these killings show no signs of abating. What is worse is that the Arroyo regime has either justified the killings (those killed were members of Communist “front organizations”), dismissed them as par for the course and no more than a part of what passes for normalcy in this country (they happen because crime happens), blamed the victims themselves (the journalists killed “should have been more responsible”), made it appear that it is not responsible for the safety of its citizens (what is happening is “beyond anyone’s control”), and, in general, professed concern in words but indifference in deeds.

Despite the obviously political motives of the Arroyo regime, by abolishing the death penalty the Philippines may lay claim to a certain level of civilization. But that claim is not only negated by the continuing murder of journalists and activists, their coexistence suggests that one is being used to disguise and divert attention from the other.

On the other hand, whatever views they may have–and the overwhelming view favors the death penalty for the heinous crimes–most Filipinos dismiss the decision to abolish the death penalty as something they can only accept because it is something about which they can do nothing. Most Filipinos will remain committed to the death penalty, primarily because not too much debate went into the decision to abolish it.

Ironically, so the surveys say, it is the poor who are most strongly supportive of the death penalty, despite the fact that it is the poor–like Leo Echegaray–who have been its worst victims. Evidently it is necessary to provide the mass of Filipinos such information as the imperfections of the justice system which allow the innocent to be condemned, as well as the cost in lives, specially among the poor, of these truly fatal flaws. As Chief Justice Pangilinan said, these imperfections include not only judicial error but also “the guile and deceit that could accompany trials.”

Finally, the mass media can learn from a review of its performance in the reporting of the Echegaray case in 1999. As is often still the case, the media react to cases as sensational as Echegaray’s (involving rape and the titillating whiff of incest) by going into a feeding frenzy characterized by a focus on trivia and a studios avoidance of what’s important. That helps explain why most Filipinos are still in the dark over the many issues involved in the death penalty debate.

Echegaray was the first to be convicted under RA 7659, the Death Penalty law. Reduced to its barest, that law is about taking lives in the context of a so-called justice system that’s severely flawed at all levels. The system is flawed at the apprehension level, where the torture of suspects is the usual substitute for painstaking police work. It is equally flawed at the trial level, where judges are too easily influenced and the poor who cannot afford lawyers or a competent defense are frequently railroaded into prison or death row.

All these were lost to much of the media, which focused on sensational interviews with Echegaray’s presumed victim, his common-law wife, and his neighbors. One tabloid claimed Echegaray watched X-rated films on the eve of his execution (he didn’t). The broadsheets focused on what he had for his last meal, how he felt and looked, and other details that could sell newspapers and boost TV ratings. The frenzy continued even after Echegaray was dead, complete with front page photos of his body. Missing was the wisdom citizens have every right to expect from the media, among them the virtue of restraint if not that of skepticism over a policy prone to uncorrectable errors.

Taking lives in whatever manner or form has a finality neither time nor subsequent wisdom can ever remedy. The recognition of this fact is the hallmark of the uthentic civilization we have yet to achieve. In the meantime there is the abolition of the death penalty to be thankful for, and I suppose we should all thank God for small mercies in this time of monstrous crimes.

(Business Mirror)

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