THE Roman emperor Nero was supposed to have fiddled while ancient Rome burned for nine days. But if he did play any instrument at all while much of the city was destroyed, he would have picked at a lute or a lyre, the fiddle, or violin, not having been invented until some 1,500 years after his reign. In any case, it’s a story every schoolboy knows (or is supposed to know, but nowadays probably doesn’t), and “fiddling while Rome burned” has come to mean irresponsible or uncaring behavior during a crisis.

Some of the stories being told about President Benigno Aquino III paint him as worse than a fiddler while Rome burns—as a playboy more focused on women and the other joys of bachelorhood than on, say, abolishing the land tenancy system; as too laid back to even visit his countrymen in the flooded provinces of Central Luzon; and worst of all, as a Play Station gamer during crises—while implying at the same time that his predecessors were better leaders.

And yet, if Mr. Aquino is indeed as irresponsible and uncaring as these and other stories portray him, he would only be the latest version of the putrid leadership with which the country has been cursed, as a look at the country’s experience over the last decade or so would demonstrate.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who thought herself competent and brainy, proved only how skilled she was in manipulating the political system for her and her family’s benefit and in running every government institution, from the Commission on Elections to the Judiciary, into the ground. Mrs. Arroyo may not have played the fiddle or any other instrument, but she did spend her nine years in the Palace by the Pasig making sure she would have wealth enough to pass on to the third—possibly to the fourth and the fifth—generation of Arroyos.

Its cost for more and more Filipinos were in her time poverty and hunger, to protest which they risked being abducted, tortured, forcibly disappeared, and/or murdered by the very state mandated to protect them. Mrs. Arroyo’s fraudulent term thus ended with a record of human rights violations and indifference to the murder of journalists bad enough to deserve international censure, in one more demonstration of the truth that a leader’s rumored possession of brains is great, but a moral compass is even better.

About the quality of her predecessor Joseph Estrada’s brains no one had any illusion. In the course of his life as an official, this “man of the masses” proved many times over how sound middle-class, Church and business community skepticism was, by, for example, associating with gamblers and other shady characters, keeping several mistresses and households, implementing the simplistic all-out war policy favored by the brain-dead military to address the multi-faceted Mindanao problem, and finally being convicted of plunder.

Mr. Aquino’s immediate predecessors weren’t exactly exemplars of leadership. But he can still live down these examples of reverse statesmanship and his developing reputation as just another fiddler by the Pasig by making good on some of the promises he made during the 2010 campaign, his inauguration, and his two State of the Nation Addresses (SONA).

Granted that weeding out corruption and bringing the country to the 21st century will take some doing. But Mr. Aquino can actually do something better with his time rather than going out with the boys and sleeping late. He can start small, if that’s his preference, and with something doable that doesn’t require either genius, passion, or even the concentration needed to play a video game.

He can start by simply issuing a statement declaring his impatience over the failure of the police to stop the killing of journalists, of which there have been four in the 15 months that he’s been in office. Such a statement will not only support his boast in last year’s SONA that his government “will hold murderers accountable,” in the course of his claim that the murders of three journalists killed before he took office had been solved.

Mr. Aquino did define “solved” as the police defines it, meaning when suspects have been identified. But no matter. Solved or not, those murders were followed by four other cases of journalists killed in the line of duty, among which cases only one accused person is currently being tried. Another statement urging the police to speed up the investigation of the other cases might lead—who knows, who knows, miracles may yet happen in this Catholic country—to the filing of the appropriate cases.

The point is to show the killers, and what’s more important, the would-be killers of journalists, that they can’t get away with murder. The state failure to punish most of the killers of journalists—only ten have been convicted since 1986 out of 122 cases—has encouraged and continues to encourage not only the killing of journalists but also their harassment.

Over the last 15 months, journalists have also been threatened, sued for libel on the flimsiest grounds, barred from the imperial presence of petty officials, and physically assaulted by policemen, the local goon squad, or by local tyrants themselves. Among other incidents, a Catholic Church-owned radio station in Occidental Mindoro was also torched this week two days after a similar attempt, apparently for its criticism of local government. Could Mr. Aquino perhaps order the local police to look for the arsonists?

Mr. Aquino could also order the formation of the Quick Reaction Teams that lawyers’, journalists’, and media advocacy groups say are needed to respond quickly to the killing of journalists by, among other tasks, assuring the integrity of evidence in the crime scene and initiating the investigation. The formation of such teams was among the points agreed upon during an August 2010 meeting between representatives of Mr. Aquino’s communications group and the department of justice. But no cigar—there’s no sign from the Pasig that QRTs are ever going to be created.

If Mr. Aquino did take these steps, it would be in the context of the month-long run- up to the commemoration of the second anniversary of the Ampatuan (Maguindanao) Massacre of November 23, 2009 which killed 58 men and women including 32 journalists. November 23 has been designated by the international network of press freedom watch groups as the International Day to End Impunity (IDEI) in recognition of that event’s significance not only to the state of press freedom and democracy in the Philippines, but also to the issues of safety the press and press freedom groups everywhere need to learn.

As every journalist in the country knows, the trial of the accused in that crime has been proceeding in fits and starts, but has at least demonstrated what problems so hobble the judicial process that among the most pessimistic estimates is that the trial can take at least a decade to complete. To address those problems the Free Legal Assistance Group (Flag) of lawyers has proposed various reforms –nine of them—the department of justice can either implement or propose to the Supreme Court. Could Mr. Aquino quite possibly also take a bit of time off from playing FIFA Soccer, or from a night with the boys, to look into those proposals?


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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  1. Re the ampatuan massacre if pnoy will not criticize the very slow proceedings the way he criticize corona the case will lost its sting by next year’s election and the poor victim’s relatives slowly forgotten. I hope that some influential opinion writers who are lawyers or graduate of law write that the real culprit in the slow court hearings is the Rules of Court especially the rules on evidence plus it is financially good for the lawyers of both sides to have long hearings due to attorneys fees. And for the judge and justices the chance to be bribe by both sides.

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