MANILA, Philippines - For weeks, Senator Tito Sotto hogged the headlines for committing plagiarism on his turno en contra speech last August 13. What should have been an open and shut case turned out to be a long, drawn-out national issue, all because the bearded senator refused to man up to his mistake.
To me, the Sotto debacle is a big waste of national attention and I wouldn't have given it time or space in this corner had he not lied through his teeth in his interview on the ANC channel. In it, he categorically denied committing plagiarism even if the transcripts of his speech clearly shows that paragraph upon paragraph of his presentation were lifted from a blog written by Sarah, the Healthy Economist (Sarah Pope).
I read his transcripts, and I read the blog, and found at least four chunks of sentences directly lifted from Pope, verbatim. As a taxpaying citizen, I resent being lied to and resent, even more, being made a fool of. Still, I was not about to waste my time on this issue. Everyone knows, after all, that Sotto is not in the caliber of Enrile, Drilon or Angara and couldn't be expected to write his own material (or review it diligently). So in consideration, I was willing to cut him some slack.
But in his privileged speech last August 29, he claimed to be a victim of cyber-bullying and, as a result, proposed to craft a bill that would define and regulate blogging in the Philippines. Teka muna. Ibang usapan na 'to! Now he's talking about curtailing my rights to information, to free speech, and to expression. Now this is where I speak up!
An Instrument For Positive Change
The Internet is the best thing that happened to Philippine politics. After centuries of intellectual divide, both the elite and the regular folk now have a common platform to speak their minds and exchange ideas, thanks to the many social media networks that allow it today. Information is now universally accessible, unlike in the past when only those in the inner circles of power were privy to the truth. The rest had to make do with whatever was fed to them.
The curtain of secrecy that once protected our public officials has been blown wide open, thanks to the free flow of information the Internet provides. These days, whatever foolishness is said in the halls of congress can be broadcast in a matter of hours. Whatever acts of impropriety can spread virally through a video clip. Whatever issues affect our lives can be debated upon in a public forum. Our politicians have never been so closely examined as they are now. And this is a good thing. Because at the end of the day, the threat of exposure serves as a natural quality control mechanism that forces public officials to do their jobs competently.
This mechanism also has the power to change the quality of our next generation of politicos. Opportunists who plan to leverage their popularity and run for positions they are clearly not equipped for better take heed from Sotto's experience. In this day and age, one can no longer just ''wing it.'' The Internet exposes everything, flaws and all. So woe to the washed out actor aspiring to be a legislator, and the over the hill comedian aspiring to be a technocrat. You run the risk of public ridicule should you fall short on the job. Think twice before throwing your hat in the ring.
To a certain degree, the Internet has also leveled the playing field among candidates running for office. Where in the past, guns, goons and gold gave a candidate an unprecedented advantage in an electoral race, such is not as pronounced today. Qualified but financially challenged candidates can still get their voices heard given the broad penetration of the Internet among the populace.
As for the voters, at no time in our history have we been so empowered to make educated choices as we do today. With just a few clicks from our cursor, we can compare platforms, credentials and track records of our candidates.
The immeasurable benefits that social media and blogging provides are what the ''talented'' senator wants to deprive us of, simply because it exposed his ineptitude. His ego was hurt, so he's leveraging his position to regulate the public's blogging rights. Now tell me, who is the bully now?
The Public's Ire
Senator Sotto's pain and mental anguish was palpable as he delivered his privilege speech last August 29. The fact that he even invoked his rights to his own musical compositions means he is taking all this as a personal attack. I reckon that any human being would feel the same way, given the circumstances. For this, I commiserate with him.
But the Senator seems to be of the impression that all the flack he is getting is due to his anti-RH Bill stand and those attacking him are those from the opposite side of the RH Bill pole. The man still doesn't get it!
Two issues draw the ire of the public. The first is his arrogance, evidenced by his unwillingness to admit to a mistake so glaringly obvious (in my book, at least four chunks of sentences lifted verbatim is obvious). As I said earlier, this would have been an open and shut case if only he had followed the lead of Manny Pangilinan and Senator Pia Cayetano, who humbly took responsibility for committing plagiarism, apologized for it and moved on. But no. The senator continues to be belligerent on the issue.
The second, and more substantive reason for the public's ire is the sloppy manner by which the Senator conducted his research. As a legislator in the upper house, we, the public, expect nothing less than work of the highest quality. In other words, research that is thorough, that is based on the most recent studies, that is taken in proper context and without logical fallacies nor inaccuracies.
What the Senator presented in his turno en contra speech was a collection of outdated information, manipulated to suit his agenda, then peppered with a good dose of personal drama for maximum impact. For the growing number of intelligent, thinking Pinoys, a piece of work like this no longer cuts it. If anything, it bares, to full public view, the limitations of the Senator.
And this, I surmise, is where the inner conflict of the Senator lies. Admitting to plagiarism is tantamount to owning up to a shabby piece of work. And for a man plagued with a stigma of being ''just a comedian,'' his admission will only validate what many think of him already.
Traumatic as the episode is, the saga brings with it a silver lining. If anything, it sends a signal to all legislators that the public expects nothing less than pieces of work that are done with quality and integrity. The public has proven that it is not passive nor gullible. It does its homework by cross-checking facts and figures brought forward on the senate floor.
While Senator Sotto bares the brunt of the public's ire, all this will eventually redound (hopefully) to better quality of work by our legislators.
Ball On Sotto's Court
I came across a letter posted on GMA News Online (www.gmanetwork.com/news/) where Mr. Leloy Claudio and Mr. Miguel Syjuco challenged the good Senator to a debate on the issue of reproductive health. To me, this is the best way Senator Sotto can redeem himself following his embarrassing debacle.
If he accepts the challenge, win or lose, he gains the respect of many, myself included. If he does not, it only proves his inadequacy. I am printing the letter here with permission from the author.
Dear Tito Sen,
Almost a year ago, I challenged you to a public debate on the Reproductive Health Bill. I did so because of your facile understanding of statistical analysis, which led you to question the maternal mortality rate in the Philippines. In response, you said it was ''superfluous'' to debate outside the Senate, and that doing so would be ''an insult to Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Pia Cayetano, who are both defending the bill.''
After I received your love letter, I spoke to both Sen. Defensor-Santiago and Sen. Cayetano. Neither of them would feel slighted if you granted my request. My dear Sen. Sotto, it is in this light that I humbly reissue my challenge. This time around, however, I offer a variation: below is another letter from Miguel Syjuco-my tag-team partner. (not included in this column-Ed.)
Hopefully you are more open to debating now. In your last privilege speech, you complained about cyber-bullying and claimed that your detractors refuse to refute the substantive portions of your turno en contra speeches. Should you accept our challenge, we will do exactly as you requested. Present all your evidence, and we will respond accordingly. If you want a tag-team partner of your own, there is always the CBCP.
In the past year, you have disregarded and misrepresented the arguments of RH advocates, while slandering them as individuals. And yet you ensconce yourself within the protective barrier of parliamentary immunity. It is you, not us, who have refused to engage.
You insist that your cause is just. Your allies from the CBCP and the theocratic right claim you are on God's side. Such platitudes impel you to defend your views/faith outside the Senate floor. Do not fail your bishops. Do not be a coward.
Whatever the case, your duty as a public official requires you to face your dissenting constituents. Go on, show us you have what it takes.
Leloy Claudio/Teacher and concerned citizen
Andrew is an economist, political analyst and businessman. He is a 20-year veteran in the hospitality and tourism industry. For comments and reactions, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Andrew on Twitter @aj_masigan.