THE BATTLE over the impeachment of Renato Corona is being fought between the camp of Benigno Aquino III and that of Renato Corona, who is no less a politician than, say, your garden-variety congressman. Corona meets all the qualifications except one: he has never been elected, and, judging from his low approval rating, is probably unelectable.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima nevertheless said Renato Corona was “acting like a politician,” implying thereby that he isn’t one, and declaring that, therefore, it was “unbecoming” of him to bring his case to the media by giving no less than six interviews in some of the most popular radio and TV news and public affairs programs.

Like every other citizen, Corona has the right not only to receive, but also to release information, whether in the form of documents, statements or interviews. If he prefers, he can even stand on his head or walk a tightrope to get media attention. In the context of the media campaign Malacanang has been waging against him, Corona’s right to defend himself in the same arena is undisputed. But it isn’t his right De Lima was questioning, but the propriety of his doing so, presumably because, as Chief Justice, he should be above politics.

Corona and his media surrogates have made much of the alleged use of the double standard in De Lima’s statement as well as in the comments of other, presumably anti-Corona observers: i.e., De Lima et al. are saying that the Palace and its partisans can go to the media but Corona cannot. It sounds like a valid argument on the surface, but doesn’t take into account the fact that Chief Justices are not elected while Presidents are, which makes Benigno Aquino III not only President, but also a politician.

Together with the back room deals, and the wheeling and dealing that go into winning elections, the media are among the politician’s weapons of offense and defense when seeking public office. Qualifications don’t always and sometimes don’t even count — not in this country they don’t. What counts most is one’s capacity to wage what the Commission on Elections has described as a “credible” campaign, meaning not only how much money one has, but how well one has made his or her presence felt in the media either through advertising, buying off reporters and even entire radio stations, or both.

On the other hand, the presumption is that Chief Justices are chosen solely on the basis of their qualifications, and not on the patronage, the dark arts of betrayal, media access and a good press, and those other tactics and assets that could decide who will be mayor, governor, congressman, senator or even President. In that sense De Lima’s statement was paying the post of Chief Justice, if not the man, a compliment, when she said Corona’s behavior was “unbecoming.”

And yet uniquely among the Chief Justices this country has had, Corona has been acting like a politician since Day One of his impeachment. It can even be argued that as far as “unbecoming” behavior goes, his accepting the post of Chief Justice in 2010 a few days after the 2010 elections had already qualified.

Practically everyone, including the media themselves, called Corona’s media appearances last week a media blitz, “blitz” being shorthand for blitzkrieg, or the rapid and overwhelming use of superior force in a war of quick resolution. But the word doesn’t really apply, Corona’s appeal to the media being as protracted and as orchestrated a campaign as the one Malacanang is waging.

Corona and company obviously know what they’re doing. It is on the front pages, in the six o’clock news and the public affairs programs where one’s views can be aired and the issues joined — and, depending upon one’s capacity to argue one’s case, how expertly one can manipulate reporters and interviewers, or, regretfully, how deep one’s pockets are, one can win over the public to one’s cause no matter how vile.

Corona has had his eye on the media before, for example when, during a speech at his alma mater Ateneo de Manila, he accused some senators of having prejudged his case, and when, in the first weeks of his impeachment trial, he made it a point to deliver calculatedly emotional speeches during flag-raising ceremonies at the Supreme Court.

In the first case, he and his PR advisers must have known that the media would report what he said, which they in fact did in print, and on TV, radio and online. During Supreme Court flag-raising rites last February, he made it a point to have his wife Christina by his side, and to be sure the TV cameras caught him dabbing a handkerchief at his presumably teary eyes, apparently in full knowledge of the tendency of the media to play up the sensational, the dramatic and the emotionally-charged even during the most perilous times. The results of this calculation were photos in the print media, and TV footage focused on — what else — Corona’s wife’s presence and his dabbing a handkerchief at his eyes, footage that as usual was repeatedly aired by the TV networks to the point of nausea.

And then, of course, there was that court holiday last February, and those statements from several judges — statements that later turned out to have been solicited by the Supreme Court –supporting Corona, and even arguing that his impeachment was an attack on the entire judicial system. Later Corona’s lawyers called a press conference in which they alleged that Malacanang was bribing some senators into convicting him. All grist for the media mill, of course, and all contributing to shaving at least a few points off Corona’s low approval ratings.

About Malacanang’s own sustained media campaign, which began on the tail end of 2011, there is no arguing. His own calculations about what would make headlines led Mr. Aquino to refuse to take his oath of office before Corona, to ignore him in state functions, and even to criticize him to his face when speaking before various audiences.

Mr. Aquino has concealed neither his antipathy to Corona nor his desire for his removal from the post of Chief Justice, not so much for his having been appointed only days after the 2010 elections, but for his supposed partisanship for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, against whom a number of cases that would inevitably reach the Supreme Court have been filed.

Beyond these and the possibility that he may indeed be guilty of at least some of the charges against him, however, there is the lingering doubt that on at least one issue Corona may have a point, and it is that among Mr. Aquino’s motives could be retaliation for the Corona court’s having ruled that Hacienda Luisita must be distributed to its tenant farmers.

If that is the case, Mr. Aquino would only be acting as the politician he indeed is, while Corona behaves like the politician he isn’t supposed to be. In this confrontation the Filipino people are being asked to make a choice. But do they really have to?


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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