Hornet’s nest

The sentencing of Atty. Lintang Bedol seems to have stirred up a hornet’s nest. But, just so that people know what the whole thing really means, maybe a couple of clarifications would be in order:

First: Bedol was convicted and sentenced for indirect contempt only. Not for anything connected to the alleged cheating in Maguindanao, not even for losing the documents in his possession. The maximum penalty for indirect contempt is 6 months and a thousand peso fine.

As an aside, Atty. Sixto Brillantes claimed to be surprised that the maximum penalty was imposed.

“I was surprised that the Comelec gave him the maximum penalty because I thought he would only be reprimanded. I had said before that the Comelec cannot afford to impose a harsh punishment on Bedol because this guy can point to them. He knows so many things,” Brillantes said in a phone interview.

Well, I guess he was wrong. And following his penchant for supposition, I suppose the fact that such a ‘harsh punishment’ was meted out to Bedol only points to the COMELEC not being overly concerned about the ‘many things’ Bedol is supposed to know. Carrying that line of reasoning further, one could say that that points to the honest desire to really clear things up.

Second: Bedol was not convicted for cheating and so on, because the charges for those allegations are still being prepared. More to the point, Mayor Jejomar may have been a mite unfair when he said:

“The Comelec has again sorely missed the point, and failed to grab a rare opportunity to rehabilitate its image. The issue involving Lintang Bedol goes beyond contempt. It involves the integrity of the electoral process which, under the present leadership, has been tarnished by widespread involving officials of the poll body.”

“The Comelec’s trust rating has consistently been at the bottom, and yet when it was given the chance to redeem itself, the poll body fumbled,” he added.

He said instead of prosecuting Bedol for the alleged poll irregularities in Maguindanao, the Comelec chose to pursue the lighter offense of indirect contempt.

Binay also bewailed the failure of the poll body particularly chairman Benjamin Abalos to hold Bedol accountable for the disappearance of municipal certificates of canvass (COC) which he claimed got lost.

The indirect contempt case against Bedol is merely the first step, not the last. The resolution convicting Bedol actually says that further investigations will be pursued. If eventually found guilty, Bedol will be held accountable for the ‘alleged poll irregularities in Maguindanao,’ and he will be held accountable for ‘the disappearance of municipal certificates of canvass (COC) which he claimed got lost.’

Why, then, did the COMELEC tackle the contempt case first? Was it really a matter of a stung institutional pride? One could choose to look at it that way, of course, or one could open his eyes and look at the practical side of it: the contemptuous acts unfolded in full view of the public and were very clearly documented. So clearly documented, in fact, that there was no room for supposition: the evidence of the acts was there for everyone to see, and none of those acts were ambiguous. Hence, the case was able to be built up quickly.

In contrast, the case for cheating is not so easily laid. Investigations are on-going and witnesses are being talked to – all for the purpose of helping the case to be built up. The charges of election rigging are certainly serious enough for it to be in everyone’s interest that the process of case build up is done carefully and correctly, lest an early misstep (committed out of the desire to hastily bring Bedol up on charges) cost us the entire case down the road.  Prosecution, after all, isn’t about what’s obvious. It’s about what one can prove; and you can bet everything you have that Bedol will challenge every single allegation brought against him. Unfortunately, all these impatient calls for his immediate prosecution fail to take this into account – as if he would simply break down and confess all his sins once we bring him to ‘trial.’ If we go into that phase of the prosecution without properly preparing for it, we will lose the fight and no one will benefit from that. Save perhaps the fish that gets away.

Back to the PDI article now, for the NUJP‘s response to the possibility of a threat to press freedom.

Commenting on Ferrer’s statements, Jose Torres, chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said the planned electoral sabotage case against the unnamed media persons was a case against press freedom.

“It is a threat to press freedom when government agencies start to threaten practicing journalists for being critical of policies. The threat alone is itself not limited to the concerned journalists, but involves press freedom,” Torres told the Inquirer.

I would agree with Mr. Torres, if the journalists were to be charged with electoral sabotage simply ‘for being critical of policies.’ But that isn’t the case.

Commissioner Nicodemo Ferrer was explicit that those who might be charged are those who manufacture “news” for the purpose of discrediting the COMELEC. There is a world of difference between simply criticizing the actions of the COMELEC and spreading false news meant to undermine the agency’s authority.  Obviously, we should not go after journalists who disagree with what we do however vociferously they may voice their criticism; but we need to call to account those who deliberately mislead the public by making up stories meant to destroy COMELEC credibility. Or, as some would be quick to point out, whatever is left of it. Now cue everyone else who says there is no credibility left to destroy; that’s arguable – especially since no one seems to be complaining that a vast majority of elected officials are now happily enjoying their offices – but even assuming that were true, would it then be acceptable to spread lies?

(Torres) added: “The Comelec should not blame the media for its failure during the elections, as proven by the Bedol and ‘Garci’ controversies. The media are only reporting what happened during the elections.”

We don’t blame the media.

Torres also said the public perception of the lack of credibility of the elections was real: “This has been going on for a long time, as evidenced by the cases filed by various political groups.”

Cases filed by political groups evidences lack of credibility of the elections?  Not necessarily inasmuch as the cases filed by people can just as easily be attributed to an inability to accept that they lost.

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