THE incoming government of Benigno Aquino III is being greeted with a level of optimism that includes the hope that it will seriously address Philippine poverty by, among other policy options, putting in place an authentic land reform program to abolish the archaic land tenancy system. But its coming to power in the wake of the disastrous watch of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also presents it with the opportunity to address, mitigate, and possibly end the culture of impunity.
“Impunity” refers to the exemption from punishment of the killers of journalists and media workers, human rights and political activists, lawyers, even local officials and judges. A weak justice system is often blamed for impunity. At the community level that weakness is manifest in the collusion between hired killers, local officials, and police and military officers, or even in the killers themselves’ being police and military personnel, or assassins in the pay of local officials.
ALTHOUGH he went out of his way to deny it, acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra would not have reversed himself without the media and public outrage provoked by his April 16 resolution.
That resolution found no probable cause for the inclusion of two members of the Ampatuan clan in the multiple murder charges arising from the November 23, 2009 Maguindanao Massacre in which 57 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers were killed.
Instead of turning a bad thing into a good thing, acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra did exactly the opposite: he turned what was already a bad thing into something worse.
From the way he keeps smiling at the cameras, he looks as if he’s gained something from the whole wretched mess. But it’s certainly not the improvement of his public image or that of the government he serves. The widespread public cynicism over the capacity of the so-called justice system to do justice to those who’ve been aggrieved, as expressed in various ways by those familiar with the role of the Ampatuans in the so-called victory of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004 and of her candidates for the Senate in 2007, is now universal. (The results of a survey on which government agency the public trusts the least should be interesting. )
The Nobel laureate William Faulkner observed some 50 years ago that their tragedy is that human beings can get used to anything. Faulkner was speaking in the context of the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, and the fear to which his generation had grown so accustomed it had become part of daily life. But his observation helps explain why public interest in the Ampatuan massacre of November 23 is waning.
As huge an outrage as the killing was of 57 men and women, 32 of whom were journalists and media workers, most Filipinos are already in the process of forgetting it, have already forgotten it, are no longer interested in it, or, when it was reported, were not even particularly shocked by it. Filipinos too can get used to anything — including the most brutal of murders and the worst killing of journalists in history.
At least one member of the Ampatuan clan seems to have recently discovered how important the media can be when the shoe’s on the other foot, and you’re being oppressed rather than doing the oppressing. Outraged over the supposed use of excessive force when Army troops stormed the hospital room of Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., an Ampatuan relative called ABS-CBN to complain about it.
The media had been barred by the military from covering the Army’s decision to finally arrest Ampatuan, three days after he checked himself into the hospital, in a ruse that should by now be familiar to most Filipinos. To escape the discomforts of a Philippine jail, every politician or similar creature of influence who has troubles with the law nearly always pretends to be sick so he can be placed in what’s known in this sorry country as “hospital arrest”. Claudio Teehankee Jr. did it so he wouldn’t have to spent a minute in Jejomar Binay’s Makati City jail while on trial for murder. Convicted but pardoned rapist Romeo Jalosjos also did it before he found heaven in the comforts of, and in his own hamburger stand in, the National Penitentiary.