POSTSCRIPT / November 2, 2006 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Mike's throwing weight around hurts President

HONG KONG – Do not let the dateline fool you. Yes, I am in the former British colony all right, but only at the airport tarmac unable to set foot literally on this special administrative region of China.

The “Via PLDT” means I have been using PLDT facilities. Its WeRoam wireless card in my laptop enables me to send-receive email, surf the net, update my ManilaMail website, and do other communication tricks, from any point in the world reached by radio signals of Smart and its co-operators.

Seated on this Philippine Airlines Airbus 330, I am tapping away at my IBM laptop-tablet as Chinese workers clean and resupply this erstwhile presidential plane coded PR 001.

I said “erstwhile presidential,” because with President Gloria Arroyo, her family and a coterie of officials having disembarked to spend the Halloween in HKSAR, this plane is suddenly just a plain aircraft.

The rest of us common guests of the President — remnants of what was originally a 185-something delegation — have been told to stay aboard while waiting for our 1.5-hour onward flight to Manila.

* * *

NO SHOPPING: Gone were First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, presidential sons Diosdado “Dato” Arroyo and Rep. Juan Miguel “Mikey” Arroyo (2nd Dist., Pampanga), Dato’s wife Victoria Celina, Mikey’s wife Angela, presidential daughter Evangelina Lourdes M. Arroyo (although I did not spot her), and granddaughters Mikaela Gloria and Marie Angelique.

Presidential brother-in-law, Rep. Ignacio “Iggy” Arroyo, whom I kept looking at because he reminded me of, huh, Superman, disembarked with the First Family.

A few of us stragglers have moved to the forward seats in the business section vacated by the presidential party. Those of us content with plebian pleasures are keeping our economy seats.

Being locked in means I will not be able to look for an adaptor or converter — if they have invented one already — that can link my IBM X-41t laptop-tablet to my car lighter outlet. (Btw, the Chinese have bought giant firm IBM and renamed it Lenovo.)

Businessman Jose Concepcion, seated behind me, will not be able to go to the duty-free shops in the transit area for the champoy pasalubong that he had been longing to buy at every stop in our four-day hopping around China.

* * *

HONG KONG SKED: The First Gentleman told us when we were on that four-hour boat cruise last Sunday on the scenic Lijiang River in Guilin that the family was to spend All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in Hong Kong.

If you ask me, the President needs a well-deserved rest after that grueling hectic schedule. Again if you ask me, she should have her grandchildren around their lola while she recharged.

Mr. Arroyo said the kids might go to Disneyland (they are entitled to all that fun, if you ask me), but the President will continue working while in Hong Kong. She has meetings lined up with local businessmen, potential investors and members of the Filipino community.

* * *

BRUSH WITH MIKE: It was uncanny how Mr. Arroyo ambled from the upper deck of the boat and joined our table for six just as we finished lunch and were in the middle of conversation.

His ebullient chief of staff Juris Umali-Soliman introduced us. When it came to me, he pretended not to have recognized me. Actually he has talked to me before, once outside the President’s suite at the Waldorf Astoria during one official visit to the United States.

“So you’re the one,” he said, and added a three-letter something that is not said in polite society. As one not intimidated by uncouth language, I just looked at him, studying his demeanor very carefully.

The husband of the President was playing a game.

“Why are you always attacking me?” he demanded. I did not bother to answer, because his “always” premise was not correct. When he did something laudable and I learned of it in relation to what I was discussing, I mentioned it in my column.

It is not my fault if there are not that many times that we hear of something new and good to write about him.

* * *

CHILLING EFFECT: After his opening jab, Mr. Arroyo backpedaled a bit and conceded that I discuss issues in my column and that I may not have malice.

“You are a public figure,” I told him. He riposted that he was not a public official.

I clarified that I did not say “public official,” but “public figure.” I did not have to explain my terms, because as a lawyer he should know the difference as well as the legal implications.

We got to talk about other things, including columnist Ramon Tulfo, a good friend of his who has written about his alleged activities and one of his women-friends. Tulfo and his brothers in media are now feeling Mr. Arroyo’s ire by way of libel suits and other pressure.

As of last count, Mr. Arroyo has filed 43 libel suits against journalists, quite a record for a single complainant.

* * *

INSULTING A GUEST: It was the wrong time for Mr. Arroyo to engage me or any of the guests of the President in a confrontational exchange. Why invite a reluctant guest, then attempt to insult him in the presence of other guests?

But I am grateful for that incident. At least, it confirmed my impression of this juvenile who wields awesome powers by the accident of his being married to the President of the Republic.

It also explains why he turns off many Capampangans. A number of the President’s cabalen see him as a burden to the presidency. “Hindi na nga nakatutulong, nakasisira pa,” is a common comment.

At that moment, I had in my laptop beside me some research materials, including a piece by Theodore O. Te, an assistant UP professor of law. Maybe I should have asked him to read it, at least for his education.

* * *

PUBLIC FIGURE: Te said among other things:

“Mike Arroyo is not an ordinary person. He is the President’s husband who occupies a distinct position in government and in the public consciousness. While he may not be a public officer under the law, he must be considered a public figure for purposes of the law on libel.

“In United States v. Bustos, the Supreme Court stated that (t)he interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs. Complete liberty to comment on the conduct of public figures is a scalpel in the case of free speech. The sharp incision of its probe relieves the abscesses of officialdom. Men and women in public life may suffer under a hostile and unjust accusation; the wound may be assuaged by the balm of a clear conscience. A public official must not be too thin-skinned with reference to comments upon his official acts. This became the basis of what would become known as the Public Figure exception to libel.

“In New York Times v. Sullivan, the United States Supreme Court ruled that honest criticisms of conduct of public officials and public figures are insulated from libel. Public figures are prohibited from recovering damages for defamatory falsehoods relating to official conduct unless shown to be made with actual malice, that is, with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard as to its truth.

“The Public Figure exception to libel was adopted in the Philippines and later expanded in Borjal v. Court of Appeals, where the Supreme Court ruled that a matter that is of public or general interest cannot become less so merely because a private individual is involved; the public’s primary interest is in the event, the public focus is on the conduct of the participant and the content, effect and significance of the conduct, not the participant’s prior anonymity or notoriety. In effect, the court allowed the Public Figure exception to be applied to a private individual for so long as the subject matter written about is of public or general interest.

“That the First Gentleman is a private individual simply because he does not occupy an elective or appointive public office cannot justify his filing of 43 libel suits. His statements and conduct are of public or general interest because of the last name he shares with the President. The various causes to which he attaches either his name or his title open doors and purses that would otherwise be closed to anyone else.

“So when FG throws his weight around by filing suits against journalists who are tasked to write about things he would rather not read about but which the public must know, it bears directly on freedom of expression and of the press.

“Because the name Mike Arroyo and the title First Gentleman are perceived rightly or wrongly to open doors that would otherwise be closed, and because judges and prosecutors are appointed by the woman he shares a last name with, the implications on fairness and impartiality in the 43 libel suits become manifest.”

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 2, 2006)

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