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Opinion | National

MEL STA.MARIA: Ominous stifling of dissent

Sen. Leila de Lima delivering her privilege speech after her ouster as chair of the Senate justice and human rights committee. (photo by Jamin Verde, InterAksyon.com)

InterAksyon.com
The online news portal of TV5

Many may not have liked what happened during the extrajudicial killing investigation headed by Senator Leila De Lima in the Senate. To some, it may have appeared volatile, biased, hostile, annoying, and provocative.

Eventually Senator De Lima was ousted last September 19, 2016 as chairperson of the Senate Justice Committee. From a fundamental perspective, the move smacks of the deadening of legitimate dissent, voted upon (or perhaps even orchestrated) by 16 senators.  

The need to maintain the role of the Senate as a check on the executive is indispensable, no matter how “unpleasant” it may be for the President. We have seen this in previous Senate hearings: GMA on the NBN-ZTE deal, Aquino on the Mamasapano incident, and Estrada on the jueteng corruption case. And we also saw this with former Vice President Binay’s investigation.  

In all these senate inquiries, its members proceeded with the hearings, uninterrupted by any dramatic intra-senate committee shuffling ostensibly because of a member’s bias or “personal vendetta.” This is as it should be considering that any public discussion, borrowing from the words of Terminiello vs. Chicago (337 US 1), must be undertaken “against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” 

And now, we have the issue of nearly 3,000 mostly poor people dead on allegations or suspicions of drug-related crimes. There is no denying that the deaths sans due process resulting from “encounters,” either with the police for the cavalier reason of “nanlaban,” or death at the hands of vigilante groups, are legitimate public issues deserving of unfettered investigation and debate. Investigation of these killings has even become more compelling since there is also the question of whether these people were encouraged or inspired, intended or not, by equivocal words of government officials from the executive department.

Such is the imperative of a democracy and government accountability.  The Constitution deliberately created three great branches of government (namely: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary) precisely to disperse governmental powers. The configuration is designed so that each branch can check any abuse committed, being committed or may potentially be committed by the other branches. Concentrating power or almost all the powers of government only in one branch (directly or vicariously) can lead to a monarchial kind of authority that is absolute and unconditional.

Presently, many members of the House of Representatives appear to be aligning with the Executive and from what we have seen so far from the ouster of Senator De Lima, at least 16 members of the Senate are apparently inclined to do likewise. And if the House and the Senate will act in unison based on mere alliances, personal beliefs and not on principle and commitment to constitutional imperatives, then we might see the specter of two branches (executive and legislative) combining to form a powerful association.

This is ominous. Eventually, Congress’ role as the fiscalizer of the executive department may virtually be non-existent. The check to balance the powers of government will be in danger of obliteration.  Autocracy by conspiracy might just be lurking around the corner. 

Is it too much of a coincidence that certain high officials of the executive department are now entertaining “Constitutional dictatorship,” an oxymoron in itself?

Forty-four years ago today, Proclamation No. 1081 placing the entire country under martial law was issued by a dictator. Marcos abolished Congress and issued General Order No. 3 & 3-A, removing from the judiciary the power to decide on cases “involving the validity, legality or constitutionality of Proclamation No. 1081 dated September 21, 1972, or of any decree, order or acts issued, promulgated or performed by me or by my duly designated representative pursuant thereto.” By these acts, Marcos eliminated the institutional checks against his exercise of power. We should never let this happen again.

We all stand to suffer if there is no genuine dissent; if there is no balance among the institutions in charge of checking each other’s powers. Quoting from political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, “If in the interior of a state you do not hear the noise of any conflict, you can be sure that freedom is not there.”

To this, we should also most definitely say: Never Again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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