Rebuffed again

In a span of two weeks, the Supreme Court has handed down a series of decisions that struck a ringing blow for political liberties and against a threatening authoritarianism.

The Court sharply rebuked President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration with a train of three decisions that sought to curb abuse of executive power as it declared as illegal, in a May 3 decision, a clause in Presidential Proclamation 1017 (which declared a national emergency on Feb. 24) giving her authority to issue decrees.

For the first time since it slammed the brakes on the administration’s seemingly irresistible lurch toward authoritarian rule, the Court did not mince words in warning the nation that the administration was retracing the introduction of the Marcos dictatorship when the President issued the enabling clause of PP 1017 empowering her “To enforce obedience to all the laws and decrees, orders and regulations promulgated by me personally or upon my direction.”

The Court cited the similarity between the wordings of PP 1017 and President Ferdinand Marcos’ Proclamation 1081 declaring martial law in 1972. The clause, which allowed warrant-less arrests, prompted Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban to say, “They (the administration) are playing with fire and, unless prudently restrained, they may one day wittingly or unwittingly burn down the house.”

This latest rebuff by the Court of the administration followed a decision that rolled back portions of Arroyo’s Executive Order 464, which banned executive department officials from testifying at congressional inquiries without her permission, and another decision that voided the administration’s calibrated preemptive response (CPR) policy.

The decision on PP 1017 and that on the CPR represent an emphatic blow for individual liberties and reflect the Court’s heightening concern over the apparently authoritarian tendencies of the administration. In these decisions, the Court clearly moved beyond issues involving the maintenance of the delicate balance of power between the executive and legislative departments within the system of checks and balances.

The issue on EO 464 involved separation of powers. The Court’s decision upheld the legislative right to compel executive department officials to testify at its inquiries “in aid of legislation,” and it also associated such appearances in Congress with the enhancement of the public’s “right to know” (through information revealed in the hearings) and “the right to participate” in democratic governance.

However, the decisions on PP 1017 and on CPR directly defended the individual citizen’s liberties from abuse in the exercise of State powers by a repressive regime in the course of its struggle for political survival, which has been justified as the “right of the State to defend itself.”

This is what makes the decisions more important to the citizens than the decision on EO 464, which is directly relevant to the members of the legislature. The two decisions define their thrust as differentiated from the thrust of the decision on EO 464. Citizens are defenseless against arbitrary and warrant-less arrests, while members of Congress have stronger defenses provided by parliamentary immunities.

The direct application of the decision on PP 1017 in protecting the political rights of assembly and freedom of the press was explicitly stated when the Court held that PP 1017 did not justify the imposition of warrant-less arrests, the raid on the office of the Daily Tribune and prior restraint on the press. The Court could not have been more emphatic when it ruled that: “The warrant-less arrests of Randolf David and Ronald Llamas; the dispersal and warrant-less arrests of the KMU and Naflu-KMU members during the rallies, in the absence of proof that they were committing acts constituting lawless violence … the imposition of standards on media or any form or prior restraint on the press, as well as the warrant-less search of the Tribune offices and the seizure of its articles for publication and other materials, are declared unconstitutional.”

While the decision offered the President some consolation by saying that declaring a state of national emergency was constitutional, it held that “such declaration does not authorize the President to take over privately owned utilities or business affected with public interests without prior legislation.” It also said that PP 1017 “is unconstitutional insofar as it grants President Arroyo the authority to promulgate decrees.”

The Court’s decisions assume further significance in the context of the administration coming under increasing international criticism over what is perceived to be its authoritarian tendencies. They give authoritative weight to, for example, a recent editorial of the New York Times, which said, in part:

“Earlier this year (President Arroyo) briefly declared a state of emergency in response to allegations of a coup threat that others disputed. Since then she has been intensifying pressure on a wide range of political critics and especially on the press. Government officials have warned news outlets that they will be held to restrictive new guidelines, the justice secretary talks darkly about a journalistic watch list… No government has made such efforts to muzzle the press since the Marcos era.

“President Bush has repeatedly hailed Arroyo as an important ally against international terrorism. He now needs to warn her that by undermining a hard-won democracy, she is making her country far more than vulnerable to terrorist pressures.”

Still, the defence of democracy is mainly the responsibility of the Filipinos and their independent institutions.