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Sen. Joker Arroyo, who served as executive secretary during the Corazon Aquino presidency, said early this week that “lesser legal minds” reviewed the report of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC). The IIRC was chaired by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, and included, among others, former Rep. Roan Libarios, governor of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.

Before her appointment as secretary of Justice, De Lima had distinguished herself in the Commission on Human Rights by making that body truly independent by uncovering and, in some cases putting a stop to, the human rights abuses the government was concealing. It was a considerable achievement, not only because De Lima chaired the CHR during the term of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, among whose appalling legacies is the politicization of practically every government institution, including the Commission on Elections, in behalf of her singular focus on staying in power. It was also courageous, since it meant displeasing the police and the military, whose human rights abuses De Lima did not flinch from exposing.

On the other hand, the Palace Review Committee of two was made up of former Quezon City Administrator Paquito Ochoa Jr., and labor lawyer Eduardo de Mesa, who were of course merely following President Benigno Aquino III’s instructions. Those instructions, says a Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism story (Malou Mangahas, “From Day 1 P-Noy wanted to save Lim, Puno, Versoza”), were basically to find a way of overruling the IIRC’s recommendation to file administrative charges against Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno and former Philippine National Police Chief Jesus Verzosa, as well as administrative and criminal charges against Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim. Mr. Aquino softened the Review Committee’s already limp recommendations further by basically exonerating all three.

All three are Mr. Aquino’s friends and allies. A day after Mr. Aquino cleared him of any culpability in the bungling of the August 23 hostage-taking incident, and two weeks after he was similarly cleared of any involvement in jueteng operations, Puno was boasting to the media how untouchable he was, and how indispensable he was to Mr. Aquino, both as an official of the government as well as a personal friend whose influence included keeping Mr. Aquino company during his forays into Manila nightlife.

If current impressions — and PCIJ’s expose — are correct, they would merely reinforce earlier observations that in his clumsy attempts to govern the country through the high-level bureaucrats he has appointed, Mr. Aquino puts a premium on friendship, kinship, extent of contributions to his 2010 campaign, as well as past service to his mother, rather than on qualifications or policy considerations.

It’s been obvious from Day 1 of his watch that Mr. Aquino was using his powers to reward those individuals who qualify as friends, relatives, campaign contributors, and former Cory Aquino officials. Even without the PCIJ story, it has since been evident that Mr. Aquino is focused on coddling his friends while at the same time being harsh to those who aren’t. Remember how he fired poor Dr. Prisco Nilo of PAG-ASA without even the semblance of an investigation?

Mr. Aquino is a captive of the same feudal mind-set — family and friends first, and the country a poor second if at all — that guides the actions of practically every one of this country’s 95 million people.

This feudal outlook guided Mr. Aquino’s foul treatment of Secretary De Lima, who is certainly qualified for her post — whose appointment was in fact one of the few based on qualifications — but whose misfortune is that she’s neither a friend, a relative, a campaign contributor, nor a former Cory Aquino official. By having the IIRC findings reviewed by “lesser legal minds” (Senator Arroyo’s words), Mr. Aquino has given the public the impression that the IIRC did a sloppy job, and that, judging from the self-serving statements of Mr. De Mesa, it wasn’t even judicious enough in establishing the facts of the August 23 incident.

From there Mr. Aquino’s exoneration of Lim, Puno, and Verzosa (while promising administrative sanctions against Lim and a review of Puno’s performance in the DILG), added insult — to China and Hong Kong, as well as to the intelligence of anyone with a two-digit IQ — to the injury that was the August 23 incident. But Mr. Aquino did not stop there. He reserved his harshest words for the two media people the IIRC accused of irresponsible behavior, describing their actions as “bordering on the criminal,” and even threatening to have his cohort in the House of Representatives introduce anti-media bills that would prevent such behavior in the future.

The behavior of the two media people concerned — and of several others on the scene — may indeed have been as Mr. Aquino described it. But it does not in any way diminish the fact that the primary responsibility for the bloody outcome — and the damage it did to the country’s international reputation as well as its relations with China — of the August 23 incident was the government’s, specifically those who presumed to direct the police and other personnel in the attempt to resolve it (meaning Lim, Puno, and Verzosa), and, on the basis of command responsibility, Mr. Aquino himself.

By making it appear that the primary responsibility for the death of eight people last August 23 was the media’s, Mr. Aquino is putting himself in the same company as those officials who, to escape responsibility for their actions, blame the media for reporting their wrongdoing. Looking for and finding a scapegoat to escape accountability is a tried and tested practice of the corrupt and the incompetent.

What Mr. Aquino’s handling of the crisis itself and its aftermath shows is a troubling incapacity to make decisions beyond petty and feudal considerations. Together with his 100th-day report, which was basically a repeat of the promises he made in his inaugural speech (although it did make the absurd claim that the country is now, a scant 100 days after he assumed the presidency, “ready for takeoff”), his post-crisis actions seriously put into question Mr. Aquino’s capacity to provide this nation the leadership it needs in these trying times.

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