Philippines: The circus is still in town
The chief justice of the Philippines was very publicly impeached and removed from his post in May. By then, the country had been gripped for four months by the seemingly endless twists and turns of his trial. It was all aired live across the media. But the soap opera, (or “telenovela” as Filipinos refer to it), didn’t end when the widely-unpopular and now-former chief justice Renato Corona was found guilty of breaking the public’s trust and being partisan.
It was just the beginning.
The summer was over and “American Idol” (another Filipino obsession) had drawn to a close. The time was ripe for the telenovela’s next round – finding a new chief justice. And yes – in keeping with President Benigno Aquino’s push for transparency and accountability – the search was conducted, historically, LIVE (again) across the media.
For the first time, the Judicial & Bar Council (JBC) conducted the interviews of the nominees for the post on TV. The JBC prepares a shortlist from which the president then makes the final appointment. The Council composed of a representative each from various sectors – the three branches of government, the private sector, the academe, retired justices, and the legal community.
So over four days of wall-to-wall coverage, 20 candidates preened and flexed whatever muscles they could - not just before the JBC, but in front of a curious audience of ordinary citizens who had never been privy to such a selection process before. Their CVs were bannered across screens, and their private lives were subjected to scrutiny.
It's not like the public gets a vote, but it definitely was not shy about its opinions. Filipinos were encouraged to have their say over social media and were even allowed to send questions to the nominees via the internet. To many, the entire exercise came across as a surreal, and somewhat superficial, pageant. Instead of being refreshingly “transparent”, there are those who felt it came across as insincere. Show ponies performing knowing they were playing to an audience. In that is the postmodern irony of it all – the presence of a camera inevitably alters the reality it is trying to capture.
Notable lawyer and columnist Tony La Viña even wondered: “Have we become so obsessed with American pop culture to the point that we are even willing to mimic American Idol and let an otherwise very important exercise with far-reaching implications for our country degenerate into a popularity contest or worse, a circus?”
Just like on “Idol”, much more seemed to have been revealed about the “panel of judges” or interviewers than the “contestants” or interviewees. Quite a number of the interviewers seemed to be grandstanding or proselytising… leaving the nominee with not much more to say other than “yes” or “no”. Biases became obvious, and unfortunately, also some ignorance.
The candidates were also not short of colourful characters. Among them, members of the Supreme Court, Cabinet officials and other presidential appointees, academics, and legislators. Including the justice secretary - a woman who played a big role in the previous chief justice’s removal - and for which she is also currently facing disbarment charges.
Confused yet? As justice secretary, she also has a seat on the JBC. Needless to say – someone else has stepped in to represent the justice department. Someone also had to step in to represent the Supreme Court as the acting chief justice was also among the nominees. It seemed everyone was gunning to be Top Judge...there were more than 60 nominees before the JBC cut it down to the final 20.
The justice secretary’s nomination isn’t the only controversy surrounding this latest “talent search”. Interviews over, deliberation is expected to happen next week so the president can make his appointment by the end of August. But the legislative branch has pulled out of the JBC in protest over its composition and the number of seats it gets in the panel throwing a bit of a question mark over what happens next. And as has been said before - stay tuned for the next chapter.