Remembering Cory Aquino's brand of democracy

Saturday June 20, 2020 ()

In 1987, after the fall of the Marcos regime, President Cory Aquino repeatedly boasted that she had, at least, restored democracy.

Corazon Aquino
(President Corazon Aquino)

True, if she was referring to the establishment of the usual tripartite framework of a presidential system: The Executive, Congress and the Judiciary. She also boasted of a free press and the restoration of the Bill of Rights.

But her claim had to be examined against the facts.

For instance, Freedom Around the World's 1992-1993 survey on political rights and civil liberties had classified Papua New Guinea, and to a lesser extent, the Philippines, "as the only examples of illiberal democracy in East Asia."

In that period, "Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia were examples of liberalizing democracies, while South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand were examples of liberal semi-democracies."

An apt description of an illiberal democracy is a country that has become predatory, maintaining some kind of order but also arresting and incarcerating opponents, muzzling dissent and controlling the media.

In his speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington in 1997, Allan Greenspan, then-chairman of the US Federal Reserve, said:

"The guiding mechanism of a free market economy ... is a bill of rights, enforced by an impartial judiciary."

Using Greenspan's guiding mechanism, it was doubtful if the Philippines indeed qualified as a real constitutional democracy with an impartial judiciary.

When she assumed office, a number of media establishments were found to have been operating under Marcos rule as state enterprises. In line with the principle that the press must be free from government control, a process of restoring these media outfits to their original or rightful owners was put in motion.

But that was all, as President Aquino aborted the process by keeping a number of newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations on a sequestered status. Among them were the Times Journal chain of publications, the Philippine Daily Express and the Manila Chronicle.

Manila Bulletin, the biggest newspaper, was also sequestered but the sequestration was lifted when it was discovered that only 20 percent of the entire shares of the publication was owned by Marcos and fronted for him by Cesar Zalamea and Jose Campos.

Besides, the Supreme Court, during the time of Justice Claudio Teehankee, rendered a decision that the government cannot own a newspaper, prompting Don Emilio Yap, the Bulletin owner, to buy the shares. In fairness, Yap turned over the proceeds to the government.

Up to the end of her term, these sequestered media facilities functioned as propaganda arms of her government, competing with the private and independent media, and unabashedly obfuscating issues in her favor.

The late Vice President Salvador Laurel recalled that early in Cory's term, she made a revealing statement that indicated her real attitude toward press freedom. He quoted her as saying that if she had only known that media would be so critical of her government, she would not have restored press freedom. She, of course, retracted when severely criticized for that statement, saying that she meant it only as a "joke", Laurel said.

Then when the late Louie Beltran, a hard-hitting journalist, wrote that she hid under a bed, the first Commander in Chief ever to do so, while the rebel soldiers were assaulting Malacañang in August 1987, she flew into a rage.

She invited Malacañang reporters to her bedroom and had herself photographed while lifting the bedcovers to show that there was no space to hide under the bed.

Not content with that, she personally went to court, the first president ever to do so, to sue the journalist together with Max Soliven, the editor and publisher of The Philippine Star, the paper that published Beltran's column.

The legal fight that ensued was, of course, one sided. Under the Constitution, the president can sue but she cannot be sued while in office. And, as admitted by the presiding judge himself during the trial of the libel case, he tendered his courtesy resignation early during Mrs. Aquino's term but she subsequently reappointed him to the bench.

Predictably, the court convicted Beltran and Soliven.

However, the appellate court, where Soliven and Beltran appealed their case, acquitted them on the recommendation of Solicitor General Raul Goco, citing, among others, the immortal words of Justice George Malcolm in US v. Bustos (37 Phil. 731):

"The 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 men is a scalpel in the case of free speech. The sharp incision of its probe relieves the abscesses of officialdom. Men in public life may suffer under a hostile and unjust accusation. The wound maybe relieved by the balm of a clear conscience. A public official must not be too thin-skinned with reference to comment upon his official acts."

President Aquino had described her administration as a "transition government" in an obvious effort to justify the lack of stability, which she passed on to her successor: the deep divisions and fragmentation; the state of lawlessness and the breakdown of morality; the behest loans scam; the plunder of some Marcos assets and those of his relatives, friends and cronies; the budgetary deficits; foreign borrowings; the power outages, and the scalawags in the military and police organizations.

Repeatedly, President Aquino's brand of democracy had been besieged by military rebellion and communist insurgency, on one hand, and by the spectacle of a weak and ineffective government, on the other.

At no time had this been more sharply highlighted than during her term, which began with so much popularity and good will, and ended with so much hatred and despair.

The late Speaker Ramon V. Mitra Jr. later unwittingly earned Mrs. Aquino's ire for putting the Executive Branch under microscopic scrutiny by the Congressional Oversight Committee that discovered the rapid decline of the Aquino administration, and caused political instability and anxiety among the people. Mitra said:

"This record of decline was perplexing both to the country and to its friends abroad. Compared with other countries in the Third World, the Philippines was remarkably an open society. No barriers of caste, custom, color, religion, or sex prevented Filipinos of talent and drive—no matter from how far down they may begin—from rising to the very top. The people have repeatedly shown one of the highest literacy rates in Asia, and this has translated into a quality of manpower that has become highly coveted and prized in the international labor market."

Source:

  • Cory Aquino’s brand of democracy remembered, Cecilio T. Arillo, October 8, 2019, Business Mirror
  • G.R. No. L-12592, The United States v Felipe Bustos, March 8, 1918, The LawPhil Project, Arellano Law Foundation

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