POSTSCRIPT / July 17, 2001 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Ping must come out swinging right away

THOSE are serious charges that columnist Mon Tulfo hurled in an open letter to his (former?) friend Sen. Ping Lacson.

In so many words, the former national police chief was accused of torture and salvaging (summary execution of suspects), coverup in an assassination case, machinations against a brother officer, dishonesty and corruption, looting of the dead, and grabbing the wife of a detainee.

The accusation having been made publicly against a high-profile public official, Lacson’s response cannot be less public. What comes after cannot be a private, hush-hush confrontation between accuser and accused.

It has been two long days after the final installment of Tulfo’s accusatory two-part column came out last Saturday. If Lacson were innocent, he would have come out swinging as early as the morning of that day. It’s now Tuesday.

* * *

WE would blame the imperfections of language for the storm of comments whipped up by the remark of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that she might commute any death sentence that may be imposed on former President Erap Estrada at the conclusion of his trial on plunder charges.

The question asked her by visiting Japanese journalists was if she would pardon Erap in case he would be meted death by the Sandiganyaban.

Her answer was no she won’t pardon him. But since she has always been against capital punishment, she said she would most likely just commute the sentence if such a hypothetical situation arises.

* * *

THE President’s response could not have meant that she was looking forward to a conviction, but with the imperfections of language she could have given that impression to some people.

Reacting to leading media questions, Erap himself ended up complaining that GMA was conditioning the public mind to his being convicted.

A lesson that GMA could learn from that flap was to be very wary when thrown hypothetical questions. There are smart public figures who just smile and decline to answer tricky hypothetical questions, especially if asked on the run or in ambush interviews.

* * *

BETTER still, the President should not comment at all on the case of Erap. The basic reason is that it is already being heard by a separate branch of government. No talk, no mistake.

Besides, this country is so beset by gargantuan problems that the President should not waste her time commenting on a case already being handled by a co-equal branch of government.

She cannot say anything, or do anything, impinging on Erap’s case that cannot be interpreted in two opposite ways. Such is the imperfection (or richness, depending on the perspective taken) of language.

Of course she can always follow up any controversial remark with a clarification, but the harm has been done.

* * *

SOME sectors were reported as saying that even if she wanted to, the President may not pardon Erap (if convicted) because the Constitution bars pardon for impeachable offenses.

We beg to disagree. What the charter bars is presidential pardon for officials who are convicted in an impeachment trial. (Incidentally, there is also a ban on presidential pardons for those convicted for electoral offenses by the regular courts.)

The ongoing process at the Sandiganbayan, a judicial body, is criminal in nature. It is not an impeachment trial and is therefore not covered by the prohibition against pardons for impeached officials.

Note also that since Erap is no longer president, he is no longer an impeachable official. He faces the Sandiganbayan not as an impeachable official but as a respondent in a criminal case.

* * *

BUT Erap’s fans need not fear for his life. At the rate the case is crawling in the Sandiganbayan, we predict that Erap will never be meted death despite the fact that plunder is a heinous crime punishable by death.

The law forbids the imposition of the death sentence on anybody who is at least 70 years old. All that his lawyers have to do is continue doing what they are already doing with consummate skill — delaying the trial — until their 64-year-old client turns 70.

We dare add that Erap will never be convicted. We’ve observed the antics of all parties — the prosecutors, the defense, the witnesses, the judges, the media — to be able to sense what the sound and fury will signify at the end.

* * *

SOME readers might ask why we had media in our enumeration of the parties that could influence the outcome of the trial.

We’ve seen enough of this world to be able to tell our countrymen that the media have become a de facto intervenor in most celebrated cases.

Parties in litigation, including their lawyers and publicists, must include the media in their calculations if they hope to have at least a fighting chance before the court and the bigger public jury outside.

We’re not insinuating that some judges can be influenced by media. We are saying it.

* * *

STILL introspecting on the press… the owners of private print and broadcast media may want to lay down a policy regarding their editors, columnists, show hosts, announcers and other staff accepting directorships and other key appointments to government-controlled corporations.

A conflict of interest could arise when a columnist, for instance, is appointed to the board of a government agency or corporation.

We’re not ready to condemn this blurring of the line between the press and government. We’re just suggesting that a delicate situation “could arise” and that we better solve the problem before it arises.

This is a monster that media owners know lurks in their premises but have long hesitated to confront. Maybe this is the right time to grapple with it.

* * *

REVIEWING some inputs we’ve received from New York, we see that Congress will be under increasing pressure to pass anti-laundering measures. The Philippines has been added to the list of nations being watched for the flow of illicit funds in local banks.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an independent international body seeking to control the flow of illicit funds through the banking system, has announced changes to the list of countries it deems “non-cooperative” with anti-money laundering legislation.

FATF recommended additional enhanced scrutiny of all dealings from or through the Philippines, Nauru and Russia. At the same time, it added Egypt, Guatemala, Hungary, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma) and Nigeria to the watch list.

FATF has announced that it may recommend stern countermeasures, such as sanctions, if legislation is not passed in these countries by Sept. 30.

* * *

THE business sections of newspapers are replete with recurring reports of some banks being caught engaging in this or that hanky-panky. Yet we seldom read of these banks being meted the corresponding penalties.

In civilized countries, it is not enough that a group of businessmen have oodles of money to be licensed to open a bank. Each of them must be morally upright and his past dealings beyond reproach.

While profit is the primordial motivation of business, including banks, the inordinate quest for it can also spell the doom of the enterprises.

The outside pressure for us to take a principled stand against money laundering is an indictment of our banking system.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 17, 2001)

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