POSTSCRIPT / July 1, 2001 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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SC should loosen up, allow some coverage

THE Supreme Court should not have handled as a simple “Yes-or-No” or a “Black-or-White” proposition the question of media coverage of the upcoming Sandiganbayan trial of former President Erap Estrada.

The question called for maturity and wisdom. With due respect, we think the tribunal fumbled and missed its appointment with judicial history.

As an avid observer of judicial conduct, we think the high court should have allowed media coverage — but under strict conditions.

* * *

WE agree that the same (almost) freewheeling media coverage of the Estrada impeachment trial in the Senate should not be allowed this time. But neither should the court completely black out media and, by extension, the public.

The Supreme Court should have been more open-minded and creative. It could have suggested a compromise.

One possible compromise could be a fixed three-camera operation: One camera focused on the witness stand, a second camera on the panel of justices, and a third providing a wide-angle shot of the audience.

All three TV cameras will be pre-set and unmoving, and no technician would be allowed to touch them during the trial. There will be no still photographers around except before and after the trial proper.

The Sandiganbayan and the rest of the world could benefit from the filming or the audio-visual documentation of the proceedings. Sayang if we fail to do this.

* * *

THE Supreme Court, being the final arbiter, must break out of its musty box and breathe the fresh air of reality. The trial of a public officer accused of a public crime is not a private matter among the accused, his accuser, their lawyers and the judges alone.

The people want to know what’s going on inside its cloistered walls. Without meaning to cast doubts on the fairness or competence of the court, the people want to make sure that what is later reported to them in hurried snatches in media is the whole truth.

(We don’t have the space now, but we want to discuss briefly next time the dangers of relying on secondhand media reports. We want to call attention to media’s inherent limitations that prevent their being able to present full, objective reports.)

* * *

JUSTICE Jose Vitug, the ponente, noted that live television and radio coverage of trials is not allowed in the US Supreme Court and federal courts. So what? That Americans do not do something is no valid argument for our similarly not doing it.

He also pontificated: “A public trial is not synonymous with publicized trial.” Of course, your honor. No argument about that.

But nobody’s demanding a “publicized” trial, as you unfortunately termed it. We just want this historic trial covered and documented for posterity — under strict conditions that would preserve the dignity of the moment and protect the rights of everybody.

We submit that the ends of justice would be better served if we allowed as many people as possible to watch, through mass media, the first-of-its kind trial of a former president. We beg the court to please open up and try working out a compromise.

* * *

IN Malacañang, meanwhile, an indication that a “mild” Cabinet revamp is in the offing is that the presidential spokesman had to publicly deny there was a shuffle coming.

Among the Cabinet officials reportedly marked for transfer is Local Government Secretary Joey Lina, who has not been able to perform up to par in recent crises. One poor showing of Lina was in the May 1 assault on Malacañang by Erap Estrada loyalists.

There were several hours of lag time between the marchers’ Edsa shrine starting point and the Mendiola target area, yet Lina who has command over the national police failed to forestall the assault at the bridges leading to the Palace.

* * *

THE mob initially met only token police resistance on the streets leading to the Palace, giving rise to speculations that former PNP Chief Ping Lacson still held sway in the police ranks.

Another red mark on Lina’s card is rampant syndicated gambling, especially jueteng. In his own province of Laguna, the illegal numbers game so flourishes that one would think it enjoys official protection.

Sen. Robert Barbers was among those sounded off by the Palace to replace Lina, but the Surigao solon who just came from a major surgery abroad is reportedly not keen on returning to his old DILG post. Senate sources said he just wants to complete his term until 2004.

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OTHERS shortlisted for the DILG are former Davao City Mayor and DILG Secretary Luis Santos, former Manila Mayor Mel Lopez, MMDA chairman Ben Abalos and NBI Director Reynaldo Wycoco.

The advanced age of Santos and his involvement in some controversies may pull him down. On the other hand, Abalos and Lopez are familiar with local government issues, which happens to be a weak point of Wycoco.

Considering the turbulent political weather in the capital, the former Manila mayor’s deft handling of violent crises in his time gives him the distinct edge. Tested by more than 200 demonstrations and a dozen hostage-taking incidents, Lopez can boast that not one life had been lost on either side in those explosive scenarios.

Being a ranking partymate of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in Lakas NUCD-UMDP, Lopez can move ever so smoothly into the Cabinet. In these troubled times, especially in the capital, GMA will find Lopez effective and useful.

* * *

BIG Filipino contractors are raising questions on the bidding for the second phase of the C5-Ortigas Ave. interchange where a foreign firm that bid 28 percent higher than the government estimate is reportedly being awarded the contract.

No Filipino contractor was able to participate under stringent and discriminatory requirements. Only firms that have had a turnover of P470 million for the past five years and built a project of similar magnitude were allowed to bid.

Inside reports had it that of the nine pre-qualified international contractors, only two — Sumitomo (Japanese) and Hanjin (Korean) — eventually submitted bids.

Sumitomo reportedly won despite its having submitted a bid that was 28 percent above the government estimate of P770 million. This is unusual, because winning bids are normally below agency estimates, sometimes even as low as 29 percent below.

With an apparent overprice of some P200 million, Filipino contractors want the bidding nullified for being, according to them, grossly disadvantageous to the government.

* * *

ONE Cabinet secretary under then President Aquino never signed a single major contract during his tenure, for fear that his signature on just one deal that is later questioned may send him to jail and ruin his name.

Until he stepped down from office, this secretary never signed a contract and therefore never had an original project done in his time.

The recent decision of the Sandiganbayan absolving former Public Works Secretary Jose P. de Jesus of graft charges in connection with a P338-million lahar-dredging contract is a study in contrast. De Jesus signed papers when duty dictated it.

* * *

AFTER the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, lahar flows buried vast areas and clogged natural waterways. The volcanology commission said the lahar would continue to devastate the surrounding plains for the next 10 years.

Dredging of waterways was one of the priorities of the public works department then headed by De Jesus. A dredging contract awarded to a foreign firm called Brand Marine Services Inc. earned for De Jesus a graft suit that haunted him for six years.

The charge sheet said that the rate of P65 per cubic meter of dredged material that BMSI submitted was higher than some of the other bids and was therefore disadvantageous to the government.

* * *

AN interesting point of the defense, which officials who are scared to sign contracts should note, is De Jesus’ contention that while the final approving signature was his, the contract went through a prodigious screening, evaluation and research by the staff headed by a senior undersecretary who then recommended approval.

It was physically impossible for the secretary to personally pore through the voluminous paperwork and evaluate the bids. But he had to sign because it was his job to sign contracts entered into by his department.

De Jesus also pointed out that in view of the emergency, then President Aquino authorized him in writing “to enter into negotiated contracts, regardless of amount, with qualified contractors and consultants” for projects in areas affected by the eruption.

The BSMI contract was submitted to Malacañang for approval and it was cleared for signing by De Jesus.

* * *

AS for the bid of BSMI being slightly higher than the bids of a few others, De Jesus pointed out that the contract included the turnover to the government of the special dredging equipment of BSMI after the completion of its work.

With the cost of the imported dredging machines inputted, the effective rate of BSMI turned out to be lower than the bids of other contractors who did not donate their equipment. The cost-saving was estimated at P3 million per dredging equipment.

The Sandiganbayan decision clearing De Jesus was penned by Associate Justice Raoul V. Victorino, and concurred in by Associate Justices Edilberto G. Sandoval and Godofredo L. Legaspi.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 1, 2001)

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