Thursday, October 11, 2012

'Hour Before Dawn'

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Marites Danguilan Vitug is Philippine journalism’s most prolific book writer today. Her oeuvres aren’t easy to write and aren’t easy on the heart, mind and conscience. She excavates, names and damns, not for her personal delight, but in order to bring to the surface long hidden ills of society and in the government, for these to be exposed to the light that kills harmful microorganisms. 

Vitug’s latest opus is “Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court” (Cleverheads Publishing, 2012). It is a natural sequel to her “Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court.” And more importantly, it comes in the wake of the first quasijudicial drama involving a long-revered government institution—the impeachment trial of a chief justice that played out live nationwide via broadcast media.

The book’s back cover blurb says it best: “‘Hour Before Dawn’ takes the reader to what might have been the darkest hour of the Philippine Supreme Court, when its integrity was compromised by the actions of its Chief Justice, who was subsequently impeached, and by a series of highly irregular reversals of its own rulings.

 “It reveals a Court seemingly subject to political pressure, disbursing funds for questionable purposes, and abetting plagiarism by one of its own members, and yet placing itself beyond criticism even by the country’s top lawyers and academics. It chronicles the most open and contentious clash between the executive department and the Court.”
 But Vitug weaves in redeeming facets and redemptive acts that give hope that the damaged institution could rise again, albeit “uncertain”-ly.

For “the book is also a record of how a staunchly independent minority within the Court stood up for what was right, giving hope for the rebirth and reorientation of one of the country’s most vital institutions.”

Vitug begins by writing about her own “run-in” with the Supreme Court. For writing about a member of the high court in an unflattering manner, Vitug was slapped with libel suits that ran in court for two years and then were surprisingly dropped by an apologetic justice-complainant. 

Vitug describes “Hour Before Dawn” as a work of narrative nonfiction. It takes off from the controversial “midnight” appointment of Renato C. Corona as chief justice, proceeds through rocky ground, to the edge of the cliff and into the precipice. She tackles the lowest points—“the unprecedented flip-flops, a plagiarized decision that caught the attention of the international legal community, ethical breaches by the leader of the highest court in the land, judicial overreach in stopping Congress on its impeachment tracks—and the most open and contentious clash between the executive and the judiciary.”

Indeed, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. The book is not about to scramble the egg; it picks up the broken pieces and beams a sharp “journalist’s searchlight” on them, on this flawed, if not broken, institution, and keeps it in the public eye. “With the hope,” Vitug writes, “that the Justices and the rest of the judiciary take accountability seriously. Already, the impeachment of Chief Justice Corona, the first in the country, has taught public officials lasting lessons in accountability.”

The book is divided into 20 chapters under six parts: The Rush to Become Chief Justice, The Partners, In Plagiarism’s Dark Shadow, The Great Reversals, The Clash and Impeached, Convicted.

Vitug devotes many pages to the rise of the Corona couple, Renato and Cristina, during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s presidency—he in the judiciary and she in the John Hay Management Corp., a government agency. Vitug also narrates the backroom goings-on related to “midnight” appointments, especially Corona’s.

In Chapter 5 (The Wind Beneath Her Wings), Vitug begins with: “Cristina’s winning streak, spanning more than a decade, coincided with her husband’s rise to power. Her string of crucial legal victories versus her uncles and aunts to her controlling their family corporation, wresting from the elders ownership of Basa Guidote Enterprises Inc, (BGEI), a company that had seen its glory days.”

A hard-nosed journalist, Vitug sniffs into hidden closets and under tables. She seeks out persons with first-hand knowledge and the goods. And so “Hour Before Dawn” is an entertaining read because Vitug tells the stories the way they should be—with human voices, human faces, settings, ambiance, juicy quotes and all. Plus, of course, the hard stuff—evidence, facts and figures, historical backgrounds, analyses and perspective. The book also displays scholarly sheen and flourish. It provides a wealth of references that shows the backbreaking spadework the author had done. Plus a Q and A with President Aquino. (For copies, contact or 3468683.)

The multiawarded Vitug is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished and respected investigative journalists. Her five books are proof of her talent and commitment. She has written for international publications, Newsweek among them. A Nieman Fellow and Asian Public Intellectual, Vitug  was editor of Newsbreak and is now editor at large of news online Rappler and president of the Journalism for Nation Building Foundation.

I’ve known Vitug for decades, since her Business Day days. We are part of a barkada of women writers—martial law survivors all—who take their calling very seriously and who meet to do extraordinary things. Like rehearsing for a singing gig at an artsy beer house that got filled to the rafters because many wanted to see us make fools of ourselves. We landed in several papers. 

I have the evidence, Marites. I have kept the clippings and the sound track.