Transcript of the Sereno interview by Stephen Sackur on BBC's Hardtalk

Friday June 15, 2018 ()

At around this time last year, most Filipinos were introduced to the BBC's Hardtalk and its hard-nosed presenter, British journalist Stephen Sackur. That was when Sackur interviewed Senator Antonio Trillanes and, perhaps with only Trillanes himself dissenting, unmasked the controversial legislator as a bloviating fraud and a political snake-oil salesman.

This week, Sackur talked to another Filipino in the news, Maria Lourdes Sereno, formerly chief justice of the Supreme Court and yet another critic of President Rodrigo Duterte. And like Trillanes before her, Sereno was exposed as a fake.

Now, I'm going to go as far as my colleague in this newspaper, Malou Tiquia, and recommend that the person who set up Sereno's HardTalk interview be shot. But I'm pretty certain that after Sereno's disastrous BBC debut, the Philippine political opposition will no longer look at HardTalk as a forum where they can spout their views without fear of being challenged.

I know that the homegrown anti-Duterte forces consider the Western media as an extension of many local media outlets, which are mere venues for the airing of their one-sided and unfounded grievances. But if they know what's good for them, they'd certainly remove Hardtalk from their list of "friendly" foreign media – especially if Sackur keeps lobbing well-researched questions like the one he asked about Sereno's government-issued Toyota Land Cruiser.

But I want you, the reader, to decide on your own. So, I'm printing the complete transcript of the entire Hardtalk interview conducted by Sackur with Sereno, as transcribed from the video by Trixie Cruz-Angeles, a good friend, colleague and legal adviser. Here goes:

("Hard Talk" interview with former Chief Justice Sereno by BBC journalist Stephen Sackur on June 13, 2018)

Stephen Sakur: Welcome to Hardtalk. Rodrigo Duterte has been president of the Philippines for two years. His war on drugs has cost thousands of lives. His human rights record has attracted international condemnation, and talks of charges of authoritarianism. And yet he has an approval rating unheard of in most democracies. My guest today was, till last month, Chief Justice of the Philippines. Maria Lourdes Sereno was removed from the Supreme Court by her fellow justices. Now was that a victory against corruption or a Duterte-inspired blow to democracy? Maria Lourdes Sereno in Manila. Welcome to Hardtalk.

Maria Lourdes Sereno: Hello. Hi, Stephen. I'm glad to be with you.

Sakur: Well it's a pleasure to have you on the program. I am mindful that just a month or so ago, you were chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court. Now you are removed from the court, and you are perhaps the most polarizing individual in your country today. Are you relishing being in the political spotlight?

Sereno: To the contrary, Stephen. There is nothing to really be joyful about my situation. But what is happening right now, with respect to my countrymen is that they are finding their voices right now. And because my situation highlighted many of the structural problems in the country, especially in the area of justice, people are saying there should be greater accountability from every public official. And that means a great deal for the fight for democracy in my country, Stephen. So that's the bright spot there.

Sakur: Well, interesting you put it like that, and I would say, your case has certainly brought the judicial system in the Philippines under very close scrutiny. So, let's go back to basics and start at the very beginning. Do you think it is credible to talk about a truly independent judiciary in the Philippines?

Sereno: I think in the present context. This President came in very strongly, attacking many institutions. The attack on the judiciary was preceded by or simultaneously carried out with attacks on different institutions. First, he laid out the basic premise that during his time as a prosecutor he was used to planting evidence and sowing intrigue. So, I think that resonates with some of our supposedly independent institutions. You could see this in the Energy Regulatory Commission, the Commission on Higher Education, in the Commission on Elections, in the judiciary and he also attacked the Commission on Human Rights and the Ombudsman. So, these relentless attacks fit into a pattern of basically, trying to weaken democratic institutions.

Sakur: You say you always tried to stay away from politics, you clearly didn't always stay away from politics. I'm just looking at several public pronouncements you made after Mr. Aquino was replaced with President Duterte. Announcements and public comments which many in the Philippines took as directly critical of President Duterte and his strategy. For example, in his war, his crackdown on drugs criminals, you went out in public with your concern about the way in which lists were being published of judges, senior police people, senior security officials who were suspected of involvement in the drugs trade. Why did you decide, as a judge, to make such public comments?

Sereno: You know, it's not a political statement at all, Stephen. To the contrary it just was a very diplomatic reminder that every official is bound to observe the constitutional guarantees of due process. I had a judiciary that I was leading. I must make sure that in the face of a very strong presidency, the Chief Justice will weigh and say “Please Mr. President, do not treat the judiciary this way. Every judge has the right to due process. The moment you pronounce their names as suspects in a narco list you effectively destroy their efficacy as judges. They were forced to go into hiding. Because of the fear that their lives were in danger. I have a duty to discharge, Stephen, and I did that not only with respect to the drug campaign, but also with respect to an attempt by the House of the Representatives to take to task certain justices of the Court of Appeals for a decision they rendered. I have a duty to always protect the independence of the judiciary. Not political at all.

Sakur: You say “not political at all.” That's not the way Mr. Duterte saw it. When you made your comment about these lists and also you advised officials not to hand themselves in without an official warrant, Duterte said you were putting him in a corner. And then he got even more angry after your public comments about his decision to impose martial law right across Mindanao because you said, Well, in some places martial law is applicable but in other places I don't think you should be doing it. Again, in the United States, in Western Europe, chief justices of the Supreme Court would not be making these very high-profile, public, political comments.

Sereno: In the face of very strong pronouncements where the president himself seems to be leading us towards a system where basically he thought that if he could disregard the constitutional guarantees of due process to our judges and even to our citizens, I am forced, I am forced to remind everyone of our Constitution. Remember, Stephen, the fight for our democracy is an ongoing one, it's not as if we have a very stable system, the democracy in my country must be guarded at all times.

Sakur: Well, talking of democracy, let us not forget, Mr. Duterte won a thumping majority of the polls in 2016. You're an appointed judge. He had a mandate, for example, to impose a security crackdown on Mindanao. He also had a very clear mandate to conduct his tough policy on drugs.

Sereno: Now, just a slight correction. He did not win a majority, he won by a plurality. Now with respect to whether an unelected judge can weigh in, of course it is the duty of constitutionally dedicated officers to weigh in when their mandate requires that they weigh in. And er ... it's not about politics, it's about doing the right thing. And every one, every Filipino must always be reminded the Constitution is there precisely to protect the lives and property of the innocent, the poor, especially the helpless among us.

Sakur: Would you also agree that integrity is of the utmost importance for any very senior legal officials? I mean not least of course the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and, as you, it seems, became more and more of an enemy as perceived by Duterte – he even used that word – there was great scrutiny put upon your own personal affairs, and it seems unfortunately that your personal affairs couldn't stand up to that form of scrutiny and real problems were exposed.

Sereno: You know, the reason why I am asking in fact, insisting several times that we proceed to a trial before the Senate impeachment court, is to prove whether there is any truth to any of the allegations that were hurled against me. Remember, Stephen, last year he already was insinuating that I was doing wrong with certain parts of the funds of the court, I ... the challenge was always the same for my part. Let's go to the Senate impeachment court, let's hear the evidence. As of now, I have been denied my right to due process. During the House justice committee hearing I was denied the right to be represented by a lawyer. And then I was saying, if you are so convinced about your case, go ahead and bring it to the Senate where there is a full-blown trial. But that was aborted. So how can anyone continue to maintain any of the allegations against me? All of these are gossip. All of these are unfounded allegations as of now.

Sakur: Well ... well, they're not all gossip, are they? And you can maybe help me clarify some of them right now. And I'm sure the people of the Philippines will be extremely interested in your answers. Is it true, or is it not true, that on roughly 17 years out of 20 when you were a senior academic in a senior post at the University of the Philippines, you did not file the mandatory statements on assets, liabilities and net worth? Is it true that you didn't or ... did you?

Sereno: Not true at all, Stephen. In fact if you are going to read about the dissent, it basically shows and in fact in the motions that I had a habit of filing these. Remember, Stephen, in a certain way, and the dissents will show this, these were afterthoughts. These were not grounds for impeachment. Impeachment grounds are always related to the discharge of the high public office that is being questioned. It had nothing to do at all with those ... those were ... That was part of my past life in which I filed the mandatory requirement. Now ...

Sackur (interrupting): How come, how come at one point you seemed to be saying that yes, you had filed them but you couldn't find any evidence that you filed them. You seem to have lost the paperwork. I mean that ... that seems very strange.

Sereno: But ... no, no. No, Stephen. That's not strange at all. In fact, we have several cases in the Supreme Court and one case particularly stands out, where a sheriff for 18 years was not able to show anything in his record and then there was a contradictory evidence where the clerk of court said, No, actually he had some of the records. And the court said, that the evidence was already enough for us to say that he ... that the presumption was in his favor. There was no evidence that was brought forward about his filing –

Sackur (interrupting): Well, this is highly detailed and you are saying this has never been tested in an impeachment trial in the Senate. But what ... but I do want to ask you before we move off the detail to broader points is this ... extravagant and lavish lifestyle that the government has accused you of conducting, including the purchase of a special Toyota Land Cruiser because you didn't like the official car that you were provided with because it wasn't grand enough, and your ... your tendency to enjoy business travel and lavish hotels ... are you telling me there is no truth to any of this at all?

Sereno (laughing): No truth ...

Sackur (interrupting): You didn't have a Toyota Land Cruiser when you were Chief Justice?

Sereno: Ok, Stephen. Stephen. Yeah. Stephen, the rules say that whatever security vehicle the President is entitled to, I am entitled to. It got full court approval, so that's the end of it. Now with respect to lavish hotels, the only hotel that they could say that was a five-star hotel was a hotel room that was used for the signing of the Asean accord by 10 chief justices. So, it was already used as a function room. At night, nobody slept in it, so I slept in it. So that doesn't amount to much, Stephen. We got it at a very big, huge block discount. And the third with respect to business travel. Of course, business travel is de rigueur for someone entitled to the same accommodations. Because my ... my position is already considered as one of the five highest offices in the country.

Sakur: Well, all right. I'm sure the Filipino people would be glad that you got a special discount on your five-star hotel. So, let's not go into that anymore. Let's get to the nub of the issue. The nub of the issue is this: that when push came to shove, never mind the impeachment process in the legislature, in the end, your fellow justices, on the Supreme Court clearly lost confidence in you, because when the Solicitor General of the Philippines filed the quo warranto petition against you, eight—that is a majority of your fellow justices on the Supreme Court—decided that you were disqualified. That you simply were not legitimate in your post as Chief Justice. Now, you talk about the independence of the judiciary; these were your fellow judges who totally lost confidence in you.

Sereno: Ah ... Stephen, these ah ... there ... there is only one way of removing an impeachable official ... That is the impeachment court. That's the Senate. Now ...

Sackur (interrupting): No, no. Please. Answer my question.

Sereno (continuing): The position ...

Sakur: Answer my question. Now.

Sereno: Yeah ... yeah ...

Sakur: My question is this.

Sereno (interrupting): What is ... All right.

Sakur: The truth is ... you lost the confidence of your fellow justices. That surely disqualifies you from being an effective Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines.

Sereno: Now, Stephen, the ... ah ... If you are going to go and look at the points I said in the motion for reconsideration, five of those justices among the eight, testified against me. So, that's five already. So, by right, under the Code of Judicial Conduct, they should be inhibiting themselves from these proceedings. Now, one said that because of my faith, I cannot sit in office, and ... So, there were only 2 that I had not asked to be inhibited because of their prior pronouncements that really voted again against me. Six said I cannot be removed except by an impeachment vote ... ah, an impeachment conviction in the Senate.

Sackur (interrupting): I..I ... hold on ...

Sereno (continuing): Loss of confidence

Sakur: Madame Sereno, this is surely a simple point here. Throughout this interview, you have proclaimed the importance of respecting the integrity of judges and the judicial system. Here we have a Supreme Court where a majority of the judges think you are disqualified from office. And then suddenly you declare that that's not legitimate. Surely your problem is that your fellow judges simply lost confidence in your integrity.

Sereno: You know, that's not true at all. There is one very important scholar Raul Burger [unclear], the reason why you require impeachable officials to go through an impeachment process, is that you have to protect the justices if even from among themselves in a collegial court.

Sakur: (interrupting): Time is marching on, so let's throw some quick questions here. What are you going to do if ... when the Supreme Court reviews your appeal of their decision to get rid of you, what if they uphold that decision, will you at that point accept that the decision of the court is final and you give up. Or will you continue, your struggle (short laugh) to keep or at least get back your old job?

Sereno: You know, these ah.. these questions that have arisen is [sic]much larger than my job. What, right now, hangs in the balance, is our democratic way of life. At the beginning, I was trying to give you the context of how so many of our democratic institutions have been attacked. During my fight, so many people have come to me and said you have a voice that has spoken about the injustice in our country, keep on speaking about that, keep on speaking about the larger issues in our country. Stephen, this issue is not about me, about whether I am popular enough. This is about doing the right thing. There is a constitution. There have been laws that outline when a Chief Justice can be removed, my point is that they have not been observed.

So, if I lose, as you say, what am I going to do? No? What am I going to do now? I think that the fight for our country's constitutional way of life is much more important than just one position—

Sakur: If I may ...

Sereno (continuing): ... this fight is much larger. I speak ...

Sakur: If I may say so, you're sounding very much like a politician. And a die-hard opponent of Rodrigo Duterte, than you're sounding like a Chief ... a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court ... I mean, there ... opposition politicians have jumped on your case. I just quote a couple of them. Risa Hontiveros, she called it a “direct stab at our Constitution.” Another opposition spokesman, Gio Tingson said, “We're now a heartbeat away from the death of our democracy.” Aren Pedrosa called it a “fascist raid on the judiciary.”

Do you align yourself with all of these comments? In other words, are you now looking to become a leader of the opposition yourself?

Sereno: That is a ... very difficult question that ... can be answered only when the correct process has been sufficiently followed. And by this, I see the root of our problems as an inability to empower, really, the little people. Those who, in their daily struggle, find themselves in the end of a ... their rope. Usually, their relatives gets ... get killed for being suspected of having committed a crime ... they have no one to run to. And I have been finding that more and more of them are coming to me.

So, what does this mean for our country? This means that there are so many things, so many problems of justice that have to be articulated.

Now, the characterization of my role is something that so many have so generously ... helped themselves to. I am not about to characterize myself as a politician, as an opposition figure ... What I understand is, right now, my present role is that, there is a voice that must be heard. People are asking me to speak for them. And I have said, yes, whether I am, whether I am retained as the chief justice or whether I am removed as a chief justice, that mission for justice must continue.

Sakur: The most recent surveys of opinion in the Philippines have Rodrigo Duterte with a satisfaction rating of plus 70 [percent]. Truly extraordinary figures. He must be the most popular politician in all of the democratic or so-called democratic world. Are you not aware that the vast majority of Filipinos seem to actually support his tough security crackdown on the drugs criminals? They seem to support his efforts to bring peace to Mindanao. They seem to support his economic policies, which have delivered last year almost 7 percent growth. This is a man, who, in political terms, is extraordinarily effective.

Sereno: So, are you saying, that the voices who are saying that there is a constitution, and the poor must have their voice according to the rule of law, those voices must be stilled simply because there is popularity in the present regime? I think it is a duty on everyone who has the privilege to speak for the voiceless, to so speak. And I ... I take that as a possible role. Now, whether you say that I am sounding like a politician or not ... I ... I don't put too much ... too much weight on that point. But what I know is that there is work that must be done to help our people.

Sakur: I don't ... I don't for one second mean to belittle the very serious questions there are about President Duterte's adherence to human rights law, and to the basic norms of behavior ... I think that is a very important debate. But I would just say to you, that Duterte has been welcomed to the American White House, the Philippines is still regarded as a partner by the European Union; we offered the Philippines economic assistance. You look at the international reputation of the Philippines today, and yes, there are grave concerns about human rights, but still, most countries appear to believe that the Philippines is still heading in the right direction. Are you saying that the international community should somehow be isolating Duterte, and treating him as a pariah?

Sereno: No, I'm not ... I not saying that at all (laugh), Stephen (smiles). What I say is that the Filipino people must begin to regain some territory in the area of constitutional rights. There must be more room for dissenting voices. And I think, Stephen your ... the analysis that have been presented about the high level of popularity. I really don't know because some of our problems seem to be getting in the way of really reaching a consensus. For example, the economic effects of the recent tax reform program, the incursions of China. These are raising alarm bells, separately, from the number of killings that are happening in my country. So, it is possible that there is a confluence of factors that will require more Filipinos to rethink their position.

Sakur: Your critics say that you're a very very calculated political operator. And that if you cannot get back the Chief Justice's office, you will run for the Senate, and ultimately your ambition is to run for the presidency. Is that true?

Sereno: Ah no. No! (laugh) If that's the question, no! No! I am not someone who plots and plans these things. I have never been really a ... someone who has sought a political office, even in the campus. So, no, it is far from me to be calculating along that line.

Sakur: We will end there. But I thank you very much for joining me on HARDtalk, Maria Lourdes Sereno. Thank you very much.

Sereno: Ok, Stephen, welcome.


  • Meilou does Hardtalk, Jojo Robles, June 14 and 16, 2018, The Manila Times

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