How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Maria Lourdes Sereno is the Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court. She is also currently the subject of two proceedings seeking her ouster from office: first, impeachment before Congress; and, second, a suit for quo warranto before the Supreme Court itself.

Most see this as payback against the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III, commonly referred to as PNoy (short for President Noynoy). CJ Sereno was Aquino’s choice as Chief Justice and whose appointment ignored the age-old tradition of choosing among the eldest sitting justices as the next Chief Justice. Not only that, she took over from former Chief Justice Renato Corona who was himself impeached and removed from office by people close to PNoy. Former CJ Corona was considered close to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was also charged with plunder by the PNoy administration in connection with the ZTE Broadband deal with the Chinese. Unlike Corona, however, she managed to finish her term, skip incarceration by being confined in a hospital, and successfully had the charges against her dropped for lack of evidence. She is also back in power as a Member of the House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress. It is also said that Arroyo was instrumental in getting former Davao Mayor Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte elected as President. So, the wheel turns and Digong’s people are now after PNoy’s people.

Senator Leila De Lima was first to be targeted. Newly minted as a Senator, she immediately managed to piss off Digong. During PNoy’s time, she was the Secretary of Justice who ran after Arroyo, even disallowing Arroyo from boarding a flight to seek medical treatment despite the fact that Arroyo got the Corona Supreme Court to issue an order restraining De Lima from preventing Arroyo’s departure. The current Secretary of Justice charged her with involvement in the illegal drugs trade when convicted felons alleged that they paid De Lima in order to keep their illegal drug trade going even while incarcerated in the New Bilibid Prison (“Bilibid”). Evidence seems week judging from the evidence presented during Congressional hearings but they charged her anyway. She is now in detention.

The funny thing about this is that the illegal drugs trade is still flourishing at the Bilibid despite the change in administration and despite the vows of Digong and the new SoJ to end it. If De Lima is now detained, one wonders who is running things now. If De Lima was blamed for the illegal drugs trade because, among others, she was the SoJ who had jurisdiction over the Bureau of Corrections, the guys overseeing Bilibid, then shouldn’t the current SoJ also be charged for the same offense? A question for another time I guess.

Next was the Ombudsman, former Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, who was also a PNoy appointee. Well, they tried but, so far, nothing has come out of their efforts.

So we now come to CJ Sereno. The charges were based on hearsay as the person who filed it in the House did not have personal knowledge of the facts alleged. It should have been dismissed outright for lack of substance but Digong’s people decided to gather evidence themselves. They seem satisfied with their work (never mind that they disallowed the lawyers of CJ Sereno from disputing the allegations) and the majority voted to impeach the CJ but they held off sending the articles to the Senate (the upper house of Congress who is supposed to sit as the Impeachment Court) pending the resolution of the quo warranto proceeding filed by the Solicitor General against CJ Sereno.

A quo warranto proceeding seeks to remove a public officer from office because he does not have the qualifications for said office. It is alleged that CJ Sereno failed to submit all the requirements when she applied for appointment to the Supreme Court. So, the theory is she can be removed from office via a quo warranto proceeding.

Most lawyers would laugh that off because the Constitution says that Members of the Supreme Court, among others, “may be removed from office, on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust” (Article XI, Section 2, 1987 Constitution). A quo warranto suit is, therefore, not a proper proceeding for the removal of the CJ from office.

It must be noted that the evidence against the CJ appear flimsy. They failed to show partiality or interfering with lower courts. The tax charge is questionable and so is the SALN thing. It should also be pointed out that pissing off sitting justices by skipping over them and being chosen as CJ despite being a relatively new SC appointee is not an impeachable offense. If it is, then that should be taken against the appointing power, PNoy, and not the appointee. Too late though, PNoy has completed his term as President.

So, impeachment is iffy and quo warranto is doubtful. Plan C is now in effect and that is to pressure judges to force CJ Sereno to resign “to save the office of the CJ from indignity” and so on. Of course, the CJ retorted with “ano sila, sinuswerte?” (That’s hard to translate into English but, in essence, it means she won’t make it easy for them.)

Indeed, a number of people have already questioned the motivation of those behind this move because, they point out, that if anyone caused the dignity of the office to be tainted, then it is those who allowed themselves to “testify” against the CJ before the House hearings and diminishing the independence of the judiciary by allowing themselves to be subjected to questioning by the House.

So, after all this, how do you solve the problem? If we believe in the Rule of Law, then, by all means, let her have her day in Court. Give her due process. Be it impeachment or quo warranto, let it run its course before the appropriate forum and let her stand or fall by the evidence adduced by both parties. It’s that simple…if we still believe in the Rule of Law that is…


Unwrapping Rappler

The Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler’s certificate of incorporation. Rappler is a Philippine media organization that, in the Philippines, is required to be 100% Filipino-owned and controlled. However, it needs money to continue as a going concern and most of the money are in the hands of foreigners. How now?

It seems that other media organizations found the answer: Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR). I am no expert on this and what I know about them comes from reading two articles, both from the Inquirer. In simple terms, it is a participation in profits. The shareholder allows third parties to purchase a share in the profits earned by his stocks in the media organization. In this manner, the legal requirement on Filipino ownership is not breached because the stocks remain in the name of the shareholder. The investor only gets a part of the earnings (dividends) earned by the stock; so, they could not even participate in the management of the media organization. That’s the theory at least.

What Rappler offered its investors to their PDRs was a bit more than the regular PDR. They actually allowed the PDR investors to have a say if Rappler was ever inclined to amend its Articles of Incorporation or undertake some manner of reorganization. Under the Rappler PDR, you can’t do that unless the PDR investors says its okay to do so. Boom. They’re dead.

According to the SEC, that provision effectively gives the PDR investor a measure of control over the media organization, and if the investor is a foreigner — anyone other than a Filipino — you just violated the legal requirement of 100% Filipino ownership and control. The SEC, therefore, cancelled the PDRs. Makes sense to me.

Here’s where it doesn’t make sense: not happy with just cancelling the PDRs, the SEC went to the max and cancelled Rappler’s certificate of incorporation because it violated the legal requirement to be 100% Filipino. Why did they impose so extreme a penalty as cancelation of its certificate of incorporation? Many suspect the hand of the Government of which Rappler has been critical of. To be fair, Rappler was also critical of the previous administration but the current one, with its controversial war on drugs and cozy relationship with China, has been a far more frequent subject much to their discomfort. People, therefore, see this as payback.

As I noted before, PDRs are not unique to Rappler. Other media organizations like ABS-CBN and GMA have also issued PDRs, and some have been bought by foreign investors. However, the SEC points out that these PDRs do not have the controversial provisions that the Rappler PDRs have. Nevertheless, it was pointed out that PLDT, a telecom company also required by Philippine law to be 100% owned and controlled by Filipinos, also violated the 100% Filipino requirement when it issued its PDRs but they were allowed to rectify their mistake and PLDT still exists today. Why was the SEC then so harsh with Rappler?

The Commissioners of the SEC were appointed by the previous Administration; so, there are those who do not see this as payback. How could it be when these people are Aquino appointees but, in the Philippines, everything is possible and political butterflies thrive in great numbers. Perhaps they do not want to share in the fate of other heads of commissions and government agencies and instrumentalities who were unceremoniously kicked out for one reason or another. In this administration, a “single whiff” of corruption is supposed to be enough to have your head roll (but it also depends on who is doing the sniffing and who is being sniffed at as it appears that friends of the administration usually gets a free pass and just gets shuffled around the vast governmental bureaucracy). Are there skeletons in the SEC closet that could cause them their heads?

Or did the SEC just make an honest mistake when it imposed the ultimate penalty? It said that Rappler can still operate and it does have the right to ask the SEC to reconsider its decision and, failing that, appeal the same all the way to the Supreme Court, which, unfortunately for them, are majority pro-government. This Government in particular; so, good luck with that but at least there’s a chance no matter how slim, and with litigation cases moving at a snail’s pace in Philippine courts, they may even survive this Administration and get a reprieve in the next.

The Inquirer articles on the PDR says in Rappler’s defense that the controversial provision is just a measure of investor protection; however, if that protection also grants them some control over the company, and the investors are foreigners, then that still violates the legal requirement to be 100% Filipino-owned and controlled. The Rappler’s lawyers should have carved that out; and investors are left with the choice of take it or leave it. It should be noted that other Rappler PDRs were not cancelled because there was no control granted to holders of those PDRs.

For now though, some people suspect that there is an attack on the free press with the Government setting its eyes next on the Inquirer. For sure, the Administration has not been happy about the coverage it has been getting from these two but, usually, governments just let it slide. It is after all the hallmark of a healthy democracy to have a free press. With populism so very in these days, however, democracy seems so last century.


Reality Check

Nobody likes what happened in Mamasapano. 44 police officers dead. 18 MILF fighters dead. Five civilians dead. After all that, everyone wants something. War. Peace. Justice. Answers.

The Nation demands justice for the 44, now called the “Fallen 44”. The MILF wants the swift passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law “without substantial changes.” Sadly, the families of the five civilians who died that day wonder if anyone will even come to their aid.

Parenthetically, I suppose the MILF feels that it is the aggrieved party since it was the police who was supposed to have breached the peace agreement between the Government and the MILF for failing to coordinate the operation with the Army and the MILF whom, unfortunately, the police mistrusts after a series of failed and aborted missions that were coordinated with the Army and the MILF. I can only suppose that the MILF would be the aggrieved party because the MILF has a lot to answer for as well: what were two known, hunted, terrorists doing in its territory, living among its members? Did its 18 fighters die in a firefight with the police officers or the BIFF? Why was there a delay in the implementation of an immediate ceasefire?

One thing is certain, the January 25 incident in Mamasapano was a can of worms the present Aquino Administration could have very well done without. And while the Government has much to answer for, one question that seems foremost in a lot of Filipinos’ minds is should the incident lead to PNoy’s resignation?

I say no. There’s a very good reason for it and the possibility of Binay as President has nothing to do with it.

To my mind, whether or not PNoy explicitly or impliedly gave the green light for the operation that eventually led to all those deaths, or failed to provide the proper or adequate reinforcements to his men, is, sadly, of no moment. All those decisions or omissions is something he will have to bear as Commander-in-Chief. The fact remains that one international terrorist was killed and 44 police officers, 18 members of the Government’s partner in peace and five civilians are dead. The operation was a mixed bag of good and bad and that’s all on the President, but unlike his generals and other subordinates, he really doesn’t have to leave office because of it.

Think about it people, if every President had to resign for every failed military mission, then the Presidential system would be a joke. The American president Jimmy Carter did not resign when the mission to save the American hostages held at the US embassy in Iran failed spectacularly. President Clinton did not resign when US Army Rangers and SEAL operators were killed in Somalia in a half successful operation popularized in the book, and later, the movie, Black Hawk Down. It’s just one of those things they had to deal with during their presidency.

PNoy too shouldn’t have to resign. We will simply have to see this as a black mark on his presidency much the same way as we remember the Mendiola Massacre that happened during the past Aquino Administration. One glaring difference though between PNoy and his American counterparts: the American presidents took full responsibility for those botched missions. PNoy seems to be content that others have fallen on their swords for him…