Dozens of Philippine bloggers, and academics from the Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle University and the University of the Philippines, have filed an ethics complaint against Senate Majority Floor Leader Vicente Sotto III for plagiarism.

The complaint came at about the same time that the Senate received a letter from Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late former US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was also the brother of former US President John F. Kennedy, demanding an apology from Sotto for passing off as his own, portions of a speech Robert Kennedy delivered in 1966. US blogger Sarah Pope has also declared her intention to file a similar complaint, for Sotto’s use of her blog posts in the course of his arguing against the passage of the Reproductive Health bill.

Although he declared that the Senate is “not condoning” plagiarism, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile described the complainants as “ignorant” of the Philippine Constitution. Enrile cited Article Six, Section 11 of that document, which declares that “no member (of the legislature) shall be questioned nor held liable in any other place for any speech or debate in Congress or in any committee thereof.”

Enrile misses the point—and so does Sotto, when he insists that the complaints against him are part of a conspiracy to stop him from opposing the RH bill. It’s not what the Constitution says, and it’s no longer the RH bill, that are at issue. It’s the reputation of the Philippine Senate not only before Filipinos but the world. And all because of the acts and statements of one senator, namely Vicente Sotto III.

In the course of declaring—incidentally in the most pompous and pretentious manner possible, and in a parody of statesmanship—his opposition to the RH bill, Sotto revealed himself to be totally clueless about the ethical responsibility of recognizing and respecting through proper attribution what other men and women have thought and said. Although one of his lawyers said there is no law against plagiarism, laws protecting the right to intellectual property do exist, even in copycat Philippines.

Sotto at one point declared that he could not be held accountable for lifting from Pope’s posts because she’s “just a blogger”. In response to allegations that he had similarly used portions of the Robert F. Kennedy speech without attribution, Sotto claimed that he had translated them into Filipino from the original English, and that, as a result, those portions were no longer Kennedy’s. (It’s an interesting and brazenly wrong claim. If that were an acceptable principle, all anyone aspiring to be, say, another Shakespeare, would have to do would be to translate Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets into Filipino for those works to be his.)

Of additional relevance is Sotto’s use of those portions in an attempt to advance a cause—opposition to a bill that would simply provide couples information on planning their families—contrary to the liberal causes the late Robert Kennedy espoused and which his daughter, as she declared in her letter of complaint, has been fighting for all her life, among the right to contraception.

Contrary to his partisans—which include a particularly obnoxious, Gloria Arroyo-era lawyer who had the effrontery not only to declare that Robert Kennedy would have been glad to have his words used to advance Sotto’s anti-RH bill obstructionism, but also to proclaim that plagiarism is an inconsequential issue—the Sotto problem involves not only the credibility of one individual, but also of the institution of which he has emerged as one of its noisiest and most disgraceful representatives.

It has to do with context. Sotto’s problems with plagiarism and logic are occurring at the same time that questions about Enrile’s candor about the martial law period in which he figured prominently are quite correctly being raised, even as citizen concern over the control of political dynasties over State institutions including both Houses of Congress has intensified.

What should be of particular relevance to the Senate is the Sotto issue’s being only the latest blow to the Senate’s declining reputation, which was only momentarily and only partially halted during the Corona impeachment trial.

If the senators of this country really have their ears to the ground, they would know that not only Sotto has become the butt of Filipino jokesters who have transformed the term photocopying into Sottocopying, so have those other members of the Senate who, during the Corona impeachment trial, revealed themselves to be either as clueless, who could hardly communicate in any language, or who’re possessed by visions of entitlement more suited to a monarchy than to a Republic.

Meanwhile, if Enrile and the rest of the Senate leadership indeed have their wits about them, they would realize that the Sotto incident is turning into one of the most damaging blows on the already sullied reputation of the Senate since one of its members was accused of involvement in a murder, in fact, in two murders.

It’s not only because the Sotto problem involves issues of honesty, and the capacity to admit mistakes that among other features define statesmanship, but also because much of its wounds have been self-inflicted by its members. The Senate leadership would, if they listened to what logic and the need to repair the damaged and damaging reputation of the Senate demands, take the necessary steps to give the complaints due course. The point would be to arrive at findings credible enough to convince the public that the Senate regards honesty and integrity as among the core values senators should respect, and from which future occupants of that chamber may draw the appropriate lessons.

Sotto’s partisans are in fact totally wrong. Seriously looking into the complaints against Sotto is not only NOT a waste of time and resources; it would be time and resources well spent.

Unfortunately, Enrile’s own statement dismissing the complaints against Sotto as the products of ignorance of the Constitution are suggestive of the same Old Boys’ Club, tayo-tayo mentality that for years has helped transform the Senate in the eyes of the citizens of this Republic from an institution it can rely on to be more intelligent, more honest, and more capable of checking its own excesses than the House of Representatives, to the equal of that LOWER house–about which, the less said, the better.



Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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