FOR the French, a suspect is guilty until he or she is proven innocent. “They can detain a person almost indefinitely.”
President Rodrigo Duterte made this claim during the celebration of National Heroes’ Day last week, reacting to what he perceived as renewed meddling by UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, a French citizen. “She should just go home,” he said.
In dismissing Callamard’s points, the President attempted to compare the French way with the Filipino way; suspects here, he said, are presumed innocent until they are proven guilty.
The reference to French criminal law would have made a compelling argument. It would have allowed the President to gather support for his controversial methods by simple association.
Alas, the statement is plain wrong.
The Embassy of France in Manila issued a clarification. “We have to point out that, as in the Philippines, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is at the core of the French judicial system, based on the principles enshrined in the French Declaration of Human and Civic Rights of August 26, 1789.”
In an attempt at face-saving at this clarification, Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella said: “The Philippines and France share the same values of respect for human rights, due process and accord primacy to the presumption of innocence.”
The President, Abella added, merely wanted to emphasize that no country has a perfect judicial system and to stress the need for amendment to existing laws to ensure that human rights are protected.
We have seen too many of these incidents before and recognize the same patterns again at work: Mr. Duterte makes a bold, emphatic, controversial statement to drive home a point. The facts are dug out and it is revealed the statement is without basis. Malacañang either tells the public they should not have taken Mr. Duterte’s words literally, or should have used their imagination to interpret them, or that it was not really what he meant.
As a result, a message meant to be powerful is diluted by the erosion of credibility. What a waste.
More than one year into his term, however, the President does not seem keen on changing his speech patterns. Perhaps that is just how he is, or perhaps he believes this is the most effective way to get himself noticed and heard.
One thing is certain: It is not a good way to get himself taken seriously.
This is especially true as just this week the President signed an amendment to the Revised Penal Code that penalizes those who spread fake news.
Before, those who violate Article 154—those who commit the crime of “unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterance”—are fined P200 to P1,000. With the amendment, they can now be fined P40,000 to P200,000 aside from imprisonment of one month and one day to six months.
Perhaps it was an honest mistake or sheer carelessness on the part of the President. Certainly he committed nothing illegal and did not endanger public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State.
Still, the President needs to be the first to show reverence toward accuracy and truth. Fewer and fewer instances of “clarification” should make him a better communicator, and a more convincing leader.