Thursday, August 10, 2006

Live reporting of the committee on justice's hearings on the impeachment complaints against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are now forbidden


Last updated 01:37am (Mla time) 08/09/2006
Published on Page A12 of the August 9, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ON the pretext of needing to avoid "congestion and [ensuring] orderly proceedings," the House of Representatives has decided to gag the media. Live reporting of the committee on justice's hearings on the impeachment complaints against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are now forbidden. Photography will no longer be allowed, except by the staff of the Public Relations and Information Department (PRID) of the House, which will certainly take only flattering pictures. Neither will interviews be allowed during the proceedings; the pros and the cons can speak to the media only after the hearing. Since the PRID will closely supervise coverage, the administration expects that only positive and well-managed reports will be broadcast or published -- and the President's supporters will have more time to get their act together.

Prominent allies of the President in the House have been blunt about their intention to dismiss any and all charges against her as quickly as they can. After all, they have the numbers and for them, democratic government is about the tyranny of the majority. However, the administration juggernaut cannot go about crushing all opposition in a manner that recalls last year's dismissal. In last year's proceedings, administration allies hoped that a combination of clever lawyering, sheer numbers and the rag-tag nature of a divided opposition would foster the impression that the system worked. But throwing out the impeachment complaint only hardened the positions of the pros and cons. It pushed the country's slide toward more extreme solutions to the political crisis.

Now, the defenders of the President know they can't afford to be as cocksure as they were last year. They also realize that, same as last year, they cannot afford to have the charges aired to the extent that it begins to fascinate the public.

The lessons of the 2000-2001 impeachment of Joseph Estrada have never been forgotten. Those lessons were that, given unlimited, gavel-to-gavel coverage, the public would flock to their radios and TV sets and become engaged in the impeachment process on a nationwide -- even international -- basis. Public interest meant that the process could no longer be completely controlled by the politicians. And the ensuing elections in May 2001 proved there were political consequences for those who were believed to have gone against the public opinion on impeachment.

With the present charges -- even more so than with last year's different charges -- the Arroyo administration can't risk an erosion of its claims that it enjoys popular support. Its allies cannot risk appearing close-minded and heavy-handed in achieving their objectives. The ruling coalition, then, only has a fighting chance if it puts limits on media coverage.

The House leadership can, of course, say it has the authority to handle the media as it pleases. Never mind if the impeachment of Estrada and the hearings on the complaints against Ms Arroyo have already set a precedent for openness and public access. The media and the public can insist as much as they want on the right of the public to information, but obviously information cannot be made available if it carries with it political consequences.

The media and the public have only one choice: comply, or be shut out completely. In the calculations of the House's powers-that-be, it is better to risk criticism over a lack of transparency than to arm the population with audio and video of proceedings whose conclusions have already been prearranged. Limit media exposure, and there can never be any smoking gun. Not even the bang would be recorded. And there would be time to spray air fresheners to eliminate the smell of smoke.

Deliberations on impeachment complaints are always serious business. They deserve the widest and most thorough publicity and access. It is not just the charges against the President that need to be weighed, but how the members of the House weigh those charges. If the House found the charges wanting last year, so too did many Filipinos find the congressmen wanting in how they handled the whole thing. So now, the same congressmen want to do it faster, but without being put under public scrutiny. And they continue to call themselves public servants?

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