By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
ELEVEN persons accused of setting up a shabu laboratory and making illegal drugs in a warehouse at Umapad, Mandaue City were convicted Friday by the Regional Trial Court (RTC) and sentenced to life imprisonment.
One accused wailed that the most guilty person, who turned state witness, was set free. A publicist’s gripe was different: he lamented that media and the public “now won’t care less that the guilty verdict (they rendered on a politician) was a product of their imagination and was not based on truth and facts by the court of law.”
The p.r. man must refer to then mayor Thadeo Ouano who was not one of those found guilty by the court. He couldn’t have been; he wasn’t one of those charged. Not he or any of the barangay officials who were investigated was indicted.
The complaint against media has merit. But then chances of trial by publicity always threaten a high-profile case, such as the 2004 discovery of the Mandaue shabu lab, which operated right under the noses of local officials.
The system allows publicity of a crime before it is heard by the prosecutor and tried in court. What were claimed as facts flew around for media to report and comment on, but wait. The officials linked to the mess had the chance to air their side, and they did so, by themselves or through their p.r. persons.
Product of imagination
Was it a product of the imagination and the public? It did happen: the story wasn’t extracted from the sky. The local ombudsman ordered a fact-finding inquiry, focused on probable liability of the mayor and officials of three barangays who were clueless about the lab operations. The Justice Department also announced an independent probe on why Ouano and the other officials hadn’t detected and taken action, a piece of information still carried by Wikipedia’s entry about the former mayor.
As to how various sectors of the press handled the issue was another thing. There were some broadcasters who must have believed Ouano and company were guilty as sin but the officials could’ve sued for libel. But to equate the behavior of a few radio commentators who defied KBP rules with the performance of entire media wouldn’t be accurate.
It’s a constant tug-of-war between public officials who’re linked to a crime, who think media attention is premature, and the press that thinks misconduct is fair game anytime.
This year, Chief Justice Renato Corona complains of trial by publicity. In 2004, so did Ouano and the other local officials who were suspected of coddling the illegal drug makers. And Ouano’s p.r. man now waves the conviction of Shabu Lab 11 as if to tell media he told them so.
It turned out the officials didn’t collude with the illegal drug makers, or, more precisely, there was no proof of that. Media could’ve played up the findings of the ombudsman and the Department of Justice. But you know what? The two agencies apparently didn’t come out with any report. What media could’ve done then was to push for the results.
Part of the job
As to RTC findings about the Shabu Lab 11, they would lack relevance as the charge sheet didn’t include any city official. Their alleged participation, if any, was never taken up at the trial. The court ruling cannot be evidence of anything about the officials.
But probable “non-guilt” was already indicated when prosecutors didn’t accuse any official of collusion or conspiracy. That, and the failure of the ombudsman and the Department of Justice to do anything beyond their “let’s-investigate” posturing should favor the officials.
The occasional smear on officials linked to a wrongdoing or irregularity is part of the risk. It was the job of the officials to know what was happening in their area of responsibility and they failed. For their ignorance about the shabu operations, they should’ve bowed their heads and wept.
It’s not that media are blameless. A common complaint against the press is that there’s a lot of noise when the accusation is raised but no blaring of trumpets when the official is cleared or acquitted.
Here, allocation of collective guilt may not be just as news organizations and journalists vary in their response to what news sources and the public expect.