BACK in October last year, I said Esperanza Cabral having to justify her actions during “Ondoy” – because of questions raised in a blog, www.elleganda.com – was a healthy exercise in accountability. She was able to prove, more so because no one accused her of such, that she hadn’t committed theft or used her office for
private gain. There was no pilfering, or looting, of relief goods in DSWD warehouses: something of an achievement considering the low standards of governance of the present dispensation. There was, however, inefficiency, proven in part not just by the DSWD’s own records, made freely available to the public (which is the whole purpose of transparency, to allow public scrutiny of official activities and policies) but by bloggers and other citizens’ observations – and the news.
Then Social Welfare Secretary Cabral insisted, in response to the blogger’s outraged entry (with accompanying photos), that her department was working “around the clock,” which I saw for myself wasn’t true: at a time the secretary made that claim, a night visit to the facility showed the only activity was courtesy of a fluffy white dog that barked at me and my companions. The secretary also said relief goods weren’t being dispatched because of a lack of volunteers, and then due to a lack of trucks from the private sector. Then as now, this raised troubling questions about a line department of the government relying on the private sector to do its job, considering the manpower at the beck and call of executive officials, the logistical assets of the state and how government certainly doesn’t lack the means to call the citizenry to action.
The President herself ended up venting her ire on the Cabinet after she noticed that a relief caravan supposedly destined for the Ilocos, Cagayan Valley, Cordillera Administrative Region and Central Luzon on Oct. 19 was still sitting, idle, in the vicinity of the Palace when she returned from Thailand on Oct. 25. Hermogenes Esperon lamely replied the idleness was due to a weather warning; but this didn’t mollify the President. Cabral helpfully chimed in that everything was hunky-dory, there were ample relief goods in Central Luzon and, in true ass-covering fashion, attempted to prove she was on top of the situation by observing that Laguna was more in need of relief goods. The President then sourly inquired why the trucks and the goods packed in them weren’t deployed to other areas if this were the case. Out of excuses, the officials rushed to send out the trucks.
Fast forward to today, when Cabral’s experience in being subjected to public scrutiny and her seeing the public was not about to give her either a free pass or would be intimidated by her being in the Cabinet, has inspired her to use government to get even with the blogger who caused her such grief. Recently, the National Bureau of Investigation filed a libel suit on Cabral’s behalf, against the blogger. This is not a mere case of an outraged party filing a libel case against another citizen; this is a case of a Cabinet secretary using the government to move her own case forward. First, she asked her own department’s legal service to look into whether she should file a libel case against the blogger, basically a request for civil servants to do what she could fully well entrust to a private attorney. Cabral then specifically asked the NBI to do the sleuthing for her case, by finding out, first of all, who exactly the blogger was, and the NBI obliged by asking the hosting company of the blog who the blogger is. The NBI then also made inquiries with the blogger’s publisher. The NBI then summoned the blogger to undergo a polygraph test.
Cabral could have asked the blogger to come forward for a tete-a-tete to clear the air; but then we are talking about an official who belongs to an administration allergic to public debate and which prefers to restrict its fights to the forums in which it enjoys an advantage. Why put yourself on par with an ordinary citizen when you have the NBI and the prosecutorial services of the government at your beck and call, and when you can bog down ordinary people in protracted litigation with the added benefit of potentially imprisoning the offending party? It’s an opportunity too pleasurable to pass.
It is dangerous to my mind to concede in the first place that this is a question of law: of Cabral merely asserting her rights by challenging the blogger’s exercise of her own right to not only express herself, but to challenge officials to explain themselves. To discuss the pros and cons of the case, whether or not malice was involved, sidesteps the objectionable reality that the law itself as far as libel goes is incompatible with our civil liberties because the provisions on libel law are an anachronism. No libel will ever be proved in the case of the blogger – but that isn’t the point. The point is to remind citizens that challenging officialdom carries such a heavy price in terms of time and money, artificially muddling the issues along the way, so that exoneration ends up neither a vindication nor a triumph of the rule of law.
At the time Cabral was battling the blogger, I said that should she pursue filing a libel case, it would be a public relations disaster. But that was at a time when public sentiment was running high against all the perceived sins of omission and commission of the government in the wake of Ondoy and “Pepeng.” Tempers have cooled, public interest has waned and Cabral can now get even. She can seek to establish a legal precedent against bloggers even as the administration she serves publicly muses about shutting down the Internet and cellphone service when the polls close on election day. As an official put it, “Every Facebook user would be discussing the results [of the elections] on Election Day and we don’t want the data tied down by traffic.” Or for citizens to be asking inconvenient questions, too.