WITH SO many other issues in the news, the media has not kept track of the case filed in the Supreme Court (SC), which relates to the killing of thousands of Filipinos caused by the government's campaign against illegal drugs, a central policy of the Duterte administration.
Responding to the announced intention of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to examine the "war on drugs," President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the country's withdrawal from the ICC in March this year.
Six members of the Senate filed a petition with the SC on May 16. The Philippine Coalition for the International Criminal Court (PCICC), a non-government organization which campaigned for the Rome Statute's ratification in the country, filed separately on June 13.The petitions were later consolidated by the Court.
After three postponements, the oral arguments on the petition finally began at the SC with newly-appointed Chief Justice Teresita De Castro presiding over the proceedings on August 28.
Despite its significance, the media, with few exceptions, were distracted by other issues and did not give the hearing due attention. Only a few reports did try to make sense of what was said in the proceedings, interpreting its meaning for the public.
CMFR monitored reports from the Manila broadsheets Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star; the primetime newscasts 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), News Night (CNN Philippines) and TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2); and selected news websites from August 28 to September 5, 2018.
The Supreme Court can either uphold Duterte's withdrawal, or agree with the petitioners that the executive department committed grave abuse of discretion in making the decision without the Senate's concurrence.
Should it uphold Duterte, the Philippines will be among those countries whose leaders have withdrawn from the ICC to escape accountability for their actions before the international community. Should it agree that the Senate has to concur with the withdrawal, it will enable that body to keep the country in the ICC as a signatory to the Rome Statute which established the ICC; and which was ratified in 2011 during the Benigno Aquino III administration. Lawyers for the Duterte administration insist that the Rome Statute was never in effect in the country because it was not published in the Official Gazette.
Limited media attention
The reports on the August 28 hearing focused mostly on the Supreme Court justices' questions and the petitioners' responses. TV news dropped the topic by August 29, with only print and online media continuing the coverage.
As the week drew to a close, the issue was overshadowed by the rice shortage problem, the Senate probe on the shutdown of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and the bombings in Sultan Kudarat, among others. When the hearing resumed on September 4, the story lost once again to Duterte's order to void Senator Antonio Trillanes IV's amnesty.
Only some online news sites, and the Star in its September 5 edition, reported the exchange between the justices and the senators. TV news did not pick up the topic at all.
The media did report related topics such as the filing before the ICC of another complaint for crimes against humanity against Duterte by the kin of drug war victims and human rights advocates. The media also quoted Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque's downplaying the complaint.
Judicial proceedings are not easily understood by the public. CMFR cheers efforts by some media organizations to highlight key points raised during the oral arguments, calling attention to their significance.
On August 29, ABS-CBN News Online and PhilStar.com summarized key points on the first day, chief of which was whether there is a need for a Senate approval for the ICC pullout. The reports also noted other issues which included the absence of a Senate rule on the Philippines' withdrawal from a treaty, and the absence of a Constitutional provision providing a mechanism for it.
Rappler, for its part, looked into what the ICC withdrawal case means for the Philippines and presented the views of legal experts. ("What the ICC pullout case means for Duterte and the Supreme Court")
Former Ateneo School of Government dean and lawyer Antonio La Vina said a ruling on the issue determines whether the president will be able to question the ICC, if and when it decides to indict him for crimes against humanity. He also raised the possibility of the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of Duterte.
Lawyer Dante B. Gatmaytan of the University of the Philippines College of Law said that a ruling favorable to Duterte could have more damaging consequences.
Rappler pointed to Article 127 of the Rome Statute which said proceedings that began prior to a state party's withdrawal would still be in effect even after the member's pullout. Based on this, the preliminary examination on the killings in Duterte's drug war can continue.
"For those who want to hold government accountable for the thousands of deaths associated with the drug war, the worst possible outcome of this litigation is a Supreme Court ruling that not only is withdrawal from the ICC a function exclusive to the executive, but that the Rome Statute never became effective in the Philippines," Gatmaytan warned.
But he also noted that a ruling recognizing the Senate's power to concur with the withdrawal "will necessarily rein in the president."
"It would be significant because it would be the first time the Court will rule against President Duterte," he added.