Supreme Court
The Philippine Supreme Court (Judicial and Bar Council photo)

The Philippines is one of the world’s most lawless countries. But it’s not because it has too few laws or none at all, but because it has too many that are often interpreted in favor of the powerful so as to bring about the exact opposite of their intention, are selectively implemented, or hardly enforced at all.

Intended to democratize the oligarchy-dominated House of Representatives, the party list law has become just another means for the dynasties to keep their decades-long monopoly on political power. The Constitution protects free expression and press freedom, but not only has the the 87-year-old libel law sent journalists to prison, the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act has even increased the jail time penalty for online libel by one degree.

The Duterte regime proclaims to the rooftops its allegiance to the independence of the legislature and the judiciary. But it has undermined the system of checks and balances that the Constitution mandates as essential to democratic governance.

The very same regime opposed to the Constitutional provision limiting media ownership to Filipinos is using it against online news site Rappler. It is even expanding its meaning to include a ban on foreign funding for non-profit organizations, while its own media system bureaucrats receive direct funding and other forms of support from China, whose occupation of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone it has not even protested.

The same regime media system claims to be opposed to the spread of false information (“fake news”) while itself being its main purveyor, together with the trolls and old media hucksters in print and broadcasting paid out of public funds.

Mr. Duterte has urged Overseas Filipino Workers to return home on the promise of more employment opportunities. But his regime has thrown the country’s ports open to a horde of illegal Chinese workers it insists are better than Filipino workers and who’re royally compensated and housed.

While claiming to be concerned with human lives, it has caused the deaths of thousands in the course of its dubious “war” on drugs in which not only the presumption of innocence and due process have been savaged, but the fundamental right to life as well.

And then there’s the impunity that has enabled not only the killers of journalists to escape punishment but also for plunderers, corrupt officials, world class thieves, mass murderers and abusive State actors to get away with their crimes, and even to remain in power.

But it isn’t only the powerful who mock the very laws they either passed themselves or which they’re mandated to enforce. There’s the same lawlessness among ordinary folk that’s manifest not only in such transgressions as crossing a red light or smoking in enclosed spaces, but also in vote-buying during elections’ being part of the “normal” scheme of things. Thanks to a corrupt political class, together with intimidation and violence, vote buying has made a farce out of Philippine elections in which the right to freely choose to whom the citizenry can delegate its sovereign powers is fundamental.

But as lawless as this country may be, there are over 40,000 lawyers in the rolls of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), or one lawyer per 2,500 people, assuming the population to be 100 million.  That compares to 1,300,000 lawyers in the US, which makes the number of lawyers in the Philippines much less in relation to the population.

Some 1,800 new lawyers have just passed the 2018 bar examinations — a small number which has nevertheless once again raised the question of whether the country has too many lawyers. It’s not so much that question that must be asked but whether these new attorneys will be going into law — or were in fact moved to take it in college — only to advance their interests no matter what the cost to the public and Philippine society, or whether they will practice the profession in behalf of the imperative of defending the laws that Philippine experience and history have established as necessary in the making of a democratic and just society.

In the present context in which the threats to them are evident and becoming more and more pronounced, among those laws are those protective of press freedom, free expression, freedom of assembly and association, the right to due process and to be presumed innocent, and those others that are crucial to the completion of the democratization process. Beginning in the revolutionary period of Philippine history, that process has been interrupted, derailed and subverted by foreign invaders, colonialism, imperialism and domestic tyranny.

Corollary to that question is whether the new lawyers will oppose the making of laws restrictive of civil, political and human rights.  The passage of such laws, together with the use of State violence, has always been among the weapons of choice of the ruling few.  But they have since morphed into bigger and even more urgent threats during the current regime.

Even lawyers committed to the defense of the rights of the voiceless, marginalized and disempowered have themselves been threatened, harassed and even killed.  Lawyers are among the few voices of dissent and truth the regime has accused of conspiring with the independent press to overthrow the Duterte regime, in an apparent attempt to manipulate public opinion against the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) as well as Rappler, Vera Files and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

The temptation to ignore these impending catastrophes to both the rule of law as well as what remains of the already limited democracy of the Philippines in favor of merely serving business and political interests for the sake of self-aggrandizement has always been strong in the professions.

Being a lawyer, a doctor, or, for that matter a journalist, opens many doors for self-advancement, to go through which subservience and obedience to the demands of the powerful is a fundamental requirement. That lesson has been driven into the heads of generations of college students by the Philippine experience with tyrannical rule. The martial law period demonstrated to Filipino professionals the dangers of political engagement, of patriotism, and of service to the people. It presented them with two starkly opposite options: to risk life, limb and fortune by using one’s skills for nation and country, or to advance and flourish by keeping silent, and using those skills solely for one’s own interests.

Doctors can abandon country and people either figuratively or literally by choosing lucrative practice in other countries over serving at home. Journalists can pretend to be ethical while being the captive of various interests. But no lawyer true to his or her calling should abide lawlessness and the rule of force, which are completely contrary to the ethical, professional and practical imperatives of the discipline of law. It helps explain why, despite the dangers, the IBP has remained committed to the rule of law and the defense of human rights, as have such groups as the NUPL. Hopefully the 1,800 new lawyers the Philippines now has will realize that the only alternative to defending the rule of law is to sit by and allow the destruction of everything that the profession they have chosen stands for.  There are lawyers, specially in government, to whom neither country nor people matter, their sole commitment being to themselves and the power they serve. These are lawyers only in name, because they are themselves disciples of lawlessness and deceit.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Judicial and Bar Council website.

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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