Looking into Gadon’s Charges: Impeachable or Not?
THE IMPEACHMENT of a sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is no minor enterprise. The effort to take down Maria Lourdes Sereno from the highest position of the judiciary, an independent and co-equal branch of government, surely involves extraordinary resources and manpower.
Its coverage requires a diverse set of skills on the part of the media. The motion to impeach moves through the legislative process as a motion; it does not go to any court until the motion prospers and requires the Senate to constitute itself as a court. As such, the process retains its political nature while moving through required legal procedures to form a judgement of the impeached official.
On November 22, 2017, the House Committee on Justice led by Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali began hearing for probable cause the complaint filed by a little known political figure, lawyer Lorenzo “Larry” Gadon, a failed senatorial candidate in the 2016 elections, also the president of a group that calls itself the Pro-Duterte Constitutional Reformers to Federalism.
A separate complaint by the advocacy group Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) was also submitted to the committee but was dismissed in September 2017 after being deemed insufficient in form.
Gadon charged that Sereno “failed” to truthfully disclose her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth” (SALN); “falsified” court resolutions; “manipulated” processes of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC); and misused public funds, among others. With at least thirty committee members present to determine probable cause, the hearing took nearly nine hours to finish.
Sereno’s legal team called the proceedings a “fishing expedition” designed to find fault with the Chief Justice — a view also expressed by other parties, such as multi-sectoral group Movement Against Tyranny, who also criticized the conduct of the hearing.
Ako Bicol Party-list Rep. Rodel Batocabe echoed the criticism during the first hearing, upon noting that Gadon could not back up his allegations with evidence pertaining to Sereno’s SALN.
The House hearing made headlines. Should the impeachment complaint prosper, Chief Justice Sereno would be the second chief magistrate to be dismissed from duty, following Chief Justice Renato Corona, now deceased, who was removed in 2012 for his non-disclosure of assets.
To date, the committee has conducted a total of eleven hearings, four of which were in January this year. Keeping up with the hearings, coverage has lacked analysis that could help the public judge for themselves the quality of charges against Sereno nor understand the politics of this impeachment.
From the beginning, Sereno’s legal team had asserted that Gadon’s allegations were “baseless” and “totally false.” In light of the resumption of the hearings on January 15, Sereno’s lawyers renewed assertions that nothing presented in the hearings “would lead to a conclusion that there is an impeachable act.”
For those pushing the side of impeachment, some congressmen led by no less than House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez freely expressed their certainty of Sereno’s impeachment, expecting conclusion sometime in late February or early March.
CMFR focused on the coverage of the newspapers (Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Malaya Business Insight, Manila Standard, the Daily Tribune and The Manila Times) as well as select news websites where there’s ample space for discussions on the complexities of the issue, from January 15 to 26.
Much of the coverage did little more than quote the issue’s talking heads, pitting the statements of Sereno’s legal team and the congressmen against each other, often in separate reports without connection or context to explain charges and defense against accusations. Reports did not provide background on the process, the president’s hostility toward Sereno, or analysis that would help the public understand the impeachment process as both legal and political.
Current news reports reflected little understanding about the issues raised against Sereno, nor hardly provided any analysis of both its legal and political aspects which could have built on past reports and commentary since September 2017.
There has been little reference to the experience of the Corona impeachment which was avidly followed as media set out to probe the charges and find evidence on their own. In contrast, there seems no curiosity about the proceedings in the house, the monotony of which have left the audience bored, uninterested and sadly, uninformed.
Newspaper coverage should provide space for analysis and interpretative reports on such complex political developments such as an impeachment. The fact that President Duterte has expressed the intent to file impeachment charges against Ombudsman Conchita Morales should be a signal to the press that these cases call for more thoughtful and deliberative treatment in the news.
In-depth reports on such an issue must be part of the news coverage. Political analysis is a skill now required for journalistic coverage to be meaningful given these issues. Such reports draw from experts who may have more learning and insight, but the journalistic presentation make them more interesting and easier to understand.
As the House continues its hearing on February 7, media still has time to catch up and finally look into the issue with more meaning and insight.