Practically everyone who’s not part of the Malacanang Mafia of conmen, plunderers, congressmen you wouldn’t buy a used car from, and relics of the martial law period has weighed in with his or her opinion on why there are plans afoot to impeach Chief Justice Reynato Puno. Mostly they’ve linked it to the wide-ranging conspiracy to keep the present Palace occupant in power beyond 2010.

Former Senate President Franklin Drilon thus said it’s part of a “grand scheme” to force amendments to the Constitution so our cross, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, can extend her term. In his own statements Senator Panfilo Lacson echoed Drilon’s take, as did Makati Mayor and United Opposition chair Jejomar Binay.
They could very well be right. Although the retirement of seven justices this year (Ruben Reyes retired last January 3, while Adolf Azcuna will retire next month, followed by Dante Tinga on May 11, Consuelo Ynares-Santiago on October 5, Leonardo Quisumbing on November 5, Minita Chico-Nazario on December 5 and Ma. Alicia Martinez on December 19) will give the Philippine Bush the opportunity to further pack the Court, she’s running out of time as far as charter change is concerned.

She can’t wait till December or even the middle of the year for both houses of Congress to convene as a constituent assembly (or “con-ass”–never has an acronym been more appropriate) so the gang can ram through the changes it wants, which would include, but would not be limited to, putting a parliamentary form of government in place. Among other amendments, the con-ass would make Article III Section 4 less forthright in prohibiting the passage of laws abridging free expression, and would make the declaration of martial law less problematic for a president aspiring to do a Marcos.

To make this happen, however, the Supreme Court will have to resolve the issue of whether the Constitutional provision that requires three- fourths of the members of Congress to agree to convening as a constituent assembly refers to the membership of both the House of Representatives and the Senate voting together, or to each chamber voting separately.

Arroyo appointees now constitute the majority in the Supreme Court, which could very well result in a decision favoring the former interpretation. But any such victory for charter change proponents would be far more convincing if Puno were to get in line, among other reasons because Puno’s has become a powerful voice of reason in a regime of violence, corruption and madness. An impeachment trial, or even the threat of one, would, in Drilon’s words, keep Puno off-balance. It would also weaken the moral force of any position he would take on the issue.

All of which sounds plausible. In the sordid scheme of things in this country, it’s exactly the kind of plot one would expect from the monsters of the Philippine netherworld children have nightmares about, but who’re as real as congressmen who line up in Malacanang for P500,000 bribes.

But the link to charter change isn’t the only thing Filipinos have to be militant about (although there’s little chance of that militancy in the current culture of apathy). There’s also the likelihood that the attack against Puno is part of the regime effort to undermine Puno’s commitment to, and initiatives in, the defense of human rights and free expression, in preparation for a renewed assault on human rights as 2010 approaches.

Given the decay and corruption of the major institutions of government and Philippine society during the Arroyo watch, Puno’s initiatives as well as statements on extra- judicial killings, government attacks on press freedom and free expression have not only helped sharpen public awareness of state violence against dissenters. Together with international attention they have also contributed to reducing the incidence of extra- judicial killings, disappearances and torture by state agencies by forcing the ideologues, planners and perpetrators of the concerted effort to eliminate political dissenters to back off and rethink their options.
(Apparently as part of the rethinking, the so-called National Security Adviser recently announced, without presenting any proof, that a bloody purge is about to take place in the ranks of the CPP-NPA. The statement suggests the chilling possibility that the regime will resume state-sponsored killings in preparation for 2010, and will blame the killings on the victims themselves. Undermining Puno at this time fits nicely into The Plan.)

The creation of special courts for extra- judicial killings Puno followed with the convening of a national summit on extra-judicial killings, and the Supreme Court’s promulgation of the writ of amparo. Puno has consistently championed government transparency (he dissented from the majority decision upholding former NEDA director general Romulo Neri’s taking refuge in executive privilege in the NBN-ZTE controversy, for example) as well free expression and press freedom (he urged lower courts not to sentence journalists convicted of libel to imprisonment and to limit penalties to fines).

Beyond these initiatives, however, Puno has also publicly made known his views on free expression and press freedom, in the process strengthening efforts to defend these against state infringement. These statements have carried the full weight of his prestige as well as that of his office, and have been of immense value to the effort to defend free expression from regime subversion.

In a keynote speech before the International Conference on Impunity and Press Freedom in Manila in February, 2008, for example, Puno declared that truth-tellers were in danger in the Philippines, and that, as a result, democracy itself was under siege.

His remarks led a judge from Chile to express wonderment that a Chief Justice would take such a public position in behalf of free expression and press freedom. But such statements are typical of Puno, who, from his days as editor of the University of the Philippines’ student paper The Philippine Collegian to the present, has demonstrated the fullness of his wisdom as a force in the making of a just society. On the other hand, there’s no denying that those planning his impeachment in behalf of the most ignoble ends are full of something else.


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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