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Media on Sereno's Trials: Missing the Larger Crisis | CMFR

Media on Sereno’s Trials: Missing the Larger Crisis

Screengrab from the Supreme Court of the Philippines’ Youtube account.


IN THE last month, the threat to remove Maria Lourdes Sereno as the Philippines’ Chief Justice of the Supreme Court stirred up even more controversy. On March 1, Sereno was forced to go on leave indefinitely in an obvious attempt to force her to resign. She did not. On March 5, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a quo warranto petition to invalidate her appointment to the top post of the Philippine judiciary, just three days before the House Justice Committee found probable cause to support the impeachment complaint against Sereno on March 8.

Holding summer sessions in Baguio, the High Court sat en banc to hear the oral arguments on the quo warranto case on April 10, with Sereno questioned by her opponents among the sitting justices.

Partisan Clash  

Coverage of every stage of the ongoing siege on Sereno since 2017 depended mostly on statements made to challenge or to defend her.  But clearly the focus on Sereno cannot but reflect on the Court itself and the crisis that has been its own making.

Such a development required independent voices—expert, learned and wise—who could appreciate the course of events, and sources who could discuss these events beyond the obvious and to help the public understand the issues at stake, to point out that the trial of Sereno is a test of the principles on which the system of government is founded.

CMFR monitored the three main broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star), primetime news programs (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, and TV5’s Aksyon), as well as select online news websites from April 4 to 11, 2018.

Missed opportunity

The process of impeachment started on September 13, 2017.

On March 5, 2018, the solicitor general filed the quo warranto petition, a term and process with which journalists were not too familiar.

Media sources referred to the applicability of the quo warranto, which should be filed within one year after the subject of complaint has held office. Sereno’s legal team established sufficiently the principle that the chief justice can be removed from office only by impeachment as set by the Constitution, Art. XI, Sec.2.

Before the Holy Week break, media reported three interventions: petitions filed by the group led by activist-priest Fr. Robert Reyes, by the Makabayan Bloc and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) – all seeking the dismissal of Calida’s quo warranto case. As reported by the media without much explanation, two of the petitions were denied by the SC on April 3, except for the IBP’s motion which was “noted” by the Court.

The petition filed by the IBP maintained that the chief justice can only be removed through impeachment as mandated by the 1987 Constitution. The group expressed confidence in the Sereno appointment, emphasizing that this went through the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

The points made by the IBP did not receive much attention from the media. There was no attempt to follow up with the officials and member leaders of the IBP to further the discussion. The IBP has sought to establish its non-partisan character and their well-known members could have been added to the coverage and to expand the discourse on the issues surrounding the judiciary. Coverage left important questions unasked: What could be Sereno’s other legal recourse should the petition be granted? How could the granting of the quo warranto petition affect the judiciary itself and other impeachable officials?

Instead, media reports chose to rely on partisan sources – CJ Sereno’s camp and Solicitor General Calida – who by now had little to offer that was new. The live audio streaming of the oral arguments allowed the public to hear the discussion of the technical and legal concepts. None of the media sources on either side of the question could add much to the news.

The exchange was disturbing as justices behaved like bickering politicians. Social media reactions were pointedly upset.

It would have helped to hear other voices on the issue. But few reports sought views from outside of the playing field.

The Star on April 11 included in brief the view of Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, dean of San Beda College’s Graduate School of Law. In his opinion, the quo warranto petition does not violate the Constitution. Commenting on the questions of qualification, the law dean added that the JBC could be held liable if the SC rules that Sereno is not qualified to hold the chief justice post (“Sereno, SC Justice in heated exchange”).

In the evening of the same day, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay interviewed on ANC’s The World Tonight warned that the SC justices could find themselves in the same position as Sereno should they rule in favor of the quo warranto petition.

In the same report, San Beda law dean Fr. Aquino said the SC has jurisdiction over Calida’s petition. He added, however, that the issue concerning the SALN is “a different matter altogether” as it depends on factors such as malice and deliberateness in failure to submit the documents. For Aquino, the question is no longer whether Sereno is guilty or not. “Can she still effectively lead the court?” he said (“Hilbay: ‘Open season’ looms for other Supreme Court justices”).

Media has not reported on how the public views this crisis. With the live audio streaming of the confrontational clash between Sereno and her judicial colleagues, perhaps the media should also ask: What is the future of the majesty of the Court?