We’ve heard this tune before, for example whenever Benigno Aquino III is accused of not doing anything about extrajudicial killings and the killing of journalists (he claims the latter’s “not serious”), decorates and promotes police and military officers involved in torture and illegal detention, or simply ignores complaints about the violation of farmers’ rights in his hacienda called Luisita.
As tiresome as the tune has become, his spokesperson Edwin Lacierda was once again whistling it this week. It was the claim that Aquino III is deeply aware of, and concerned over human rights issues because both his parents, Benigno Aquino, Jr. and Corazon Cojuangco, were themselves victims of human rights violations.
Just how aware and concerned Aquino III is over human rights he recently demonstrated, practically on the eve of the 28th anniversary of EDSA 1, by (1.) appointing on Feb. 13 a former police general to the Human Rights Victims Claims Board mandated by the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013 (RA 10368); and (2.) mouthing off on the Supreme Court decision upholding the provisions on online libel of the Cyber Crime Prevention Act of 2012 (RA 10175).
The first was an atrocity beyond words. Aquino and company defended the appointment of former Philippine National Police (PNP) general Lina Sarmiento by declaring that she wasn’t part of the Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police (PC-INP), which during martial law was arguably the worst violator of human rights in the country — and, according to the US political scientist Alfred McCoy, quite possibly in the world — which is true enough.
What they weren’t saying is that the PNP is the successor to the PC-INP, and from its inception was manned by the very same people who were raping women detainees and firing at demonstrators with automatic weapons from 1972 to 1986. As its successor, the PNP kept to the accustomed habits of the goons that inhabit it even after 1986, shooting and killing farmers at Mendiola in January 1987, for example, or, as was recently exposed by the Commission on Human Rights, torturing suspects for the sheer fun of it via a TV program-inspired game called Wheel of Torture.
The point is that police generals aren’t exactly trained in a culture of respect for human rights, or even any culture at all except that of corruption and violence. Even Mr. Aquino’s real boss, the United States, has been forced to admit through the Department of State Report on Human Rights Practices that “The 147,190-member PNP has deep-rooted institutional deficiencies and continued to suffer from a widely held and accurate public perception that corruption remained a problem. Members of the PNP regularly were accused of torture, soliciting bribes, and other illegal acts. The PNP’s Internal Affairs Service (which supposedly monitors police compliance with the law) remained largely ineffective.”
That was as recent as 2012, and things have apparently not changed since then, judging from the frequency of the complaints of human rights organizations over police torture of suspects and extra judicial killings. The US Department of State has in fact had the occasion to state in past reports that security forces (including the police) are among the worst violators of human rights in the Philippines.
That’s as far as the institution from which she came goes. As for Sarmiento herself, she headed a unit of the PNP that was at best only for show and at worst a convenient means to deny that the police ever commit human rights violations. Appointing her chair of the HR Victims Claims Board is akin to hiring the fox that’s been killing the chickens to guard the henhouse.
It is also an insult to human rights victims, and blatantly ignorant of the dimensions of both the human rights crisis in this country and of the immensity of the atrocities committed against the victims of human rights violations by security forces during and after the martial law period.
But this kind of gross insensitivity and outright cluelessness isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in the schoolboy administration of Benigno Aquino, III. The same Aquino claimed last week, in support of the Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the online libel provisions of RA 10175, that journalists — his favorite scapegoats for everything that’s wrong in this country and its governance — need not fear libel suits if they’re telling the truth.
And yet the truth alone is not a defense against libel — not in this country it isn’t. The 82-year-old Philippine libel law assumes malice in every “defamatory” statement, which is something so basic every communication student at the University of the Philippines learns in his or her sophomore year class on Mass Media Law, but with which, surrounded by lawyers as he is, Mr. Aquino is apparently as clueless as someone who spent half his life in a cave.
As sophomoric was his repeating one of his favorite clichés: that rights have limits, and that therefore, the law has to enforce those limits through a libel law — which weren’t his exact words, really, but which one can untangle from the thicket of words, words, words he let loose to the media during a Palace press conference.
That of course was not the issue, that argument being so worn it’s embarrassing to repeat it. The point is that the penalty of imprisonment for libel in the Revised Penal Code, which is six months per count, is by itself disproportionate to the offense — or, as the UN Committee on Human Rights puts it, is so clearly “excessive” one would have to be retarded not to realize it.
That being the case, RA 10175, which Mr. Aquino signed with unaccustomed haste (papers are known to rot on his desk for months) in September 2012, is even more extreme, since it mandates a minimum penalty of six years’ imprisonment per count to a maximum of 12 for online libel: i.e., for calling someone a moron in Facebook or in Twitter, or, for that matter, in an e-mail or a text (SMS) message, one can end up rotting in a filthy, overcrowded Philippine jail together with murderers, kidnappers and rapists.
These penalties are enough to make a mockery of Article III Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution — you know, that provision protecting free expression and press freedom. And yet here was Lacierda carrying on about Mr. Aquino’s supposedly deep concern for human rights allegedly because he is his parents’ son.
If the sins of the fathers shouldn’t be blamed on their children, should the virtues of parents be attributed to their sons? Apparently not — at least not in this case — if we’re to judge by Mr. Aquino’s increasingly atrocious human rights record.
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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
February 27, 2014