The Filipino as Frodo (or why you shouldn’t shut up about Sotto)

This past month, I watched in disbelief as the most important political debate of my generation devolved into a circus starring Senator Tito Sotto III as the clown. While proponents of the Reproductive Health Bill* struggled to move the deliberations forward, Tito Sen declared himself champion of the opposing camp and planted his feet firmly in the way.

Fair enough. But then he opened his mouth during his first turno en contra speech, and it all fell apart. The nation tuned in, expecting well-reasoned arguments, only to hear plagiarized ideas, outdated research, and manufactured drama. It all went downhill from there (here’s a timeline and another one if you just woke up from a coma and missed it), with the last turno en kopya disaster turning out to have a conclusion directly translated from a Robert F. Kennedy speech.

In the public smackdown that followed, I noticed something rather unusual. The Senate was silent. The people were in uproar, but there was no backlash from the other members of the institution that Sotto’s antics were debasing in front of the entire world. Juan Ponce Enrile, whose legacy as senate president is at stake, practically gave Sotto a hug for being so misunderstood. Even the volatile Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who is as much an academic as she is a public servant, was uncharacteristically tolerant. Really, senators? You don’t care about the blatant lying and stealing within your ranks at all?

You know what this reminds me of? The fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings**. Remember how Frodo had to take the One Ring to Mordor when the great powers of Middle Earth refused to even touch it? They feared the temptation of the ring, so it fell to a simple little hobbit to vanquish the darkest evil in the land. “Even the smallest person,” the Elf-queen Galadriel told him, “can change the course of the future.”

Now I don’t know if our leaders’ failure to denounce Sotto’s lack of integrity can be compared to the noble rejection of the ring’s power, but Rappler’s Carla Montemayor offered some conjectures. No matter what the reason, their hands-off response to Sotto’s shenanigans has allowed his corruption free rein in the Senate. And now it falls to ordinary Filipinos and whatever tools we can muster to call him out. It’s up to us.

So we  write, and write, and write. We pour out our indignation, our anger at being treated like simpletons by a senator who owes his power to us.

We combat the misinformation, manipulations, and outright lies that Sotto and his ilk spout on a regular basis. Refusing to be fooled, we link to reputable studies, point out logical fallacies, and hover over our keyboards ready to google fu the heck out of the hype.

We rally behind two of us, writer Miguel Syjuco and teacher Leloy Claudio, who challenged one of the highest officials in the land to a debate about his so-called evidence against the bill. (Sotto refused them, of course, because God forbid he should ever exert actual intellectual effort.)

We fire off tweets and memes and Facebook posts, today’s equivalent of placards and people power chants. We laugh and mock and rage at Sotto, but underneath it all, we just want an apology. We just want to believe that there’s decency and integrity in our sworn leaders. (SPOILER ALERT: Not gonna happen, guys.)

We start petitions to penalize or oust Sotto which, let’s be realistic, would probably only be ignored by old school politicians who wouldn’t comprehend that behind these digital signatures are flesh-and-blood Filipinos desperate for change. But we sign them anyway, because we want our names to be included in the lists of those who care enough to try.

In the end, that’s the real reason we  even have a fighting chance. Not because we have political clout, religious influence, or crowds of reporters hanging on to our every word.  Our power rests on the simple fact that we give a damn. Apathy is so much easier. After all, haven’t we learned after decades of corruption that cheating is inevitable? Yet we refuse to accept that. We refuse to just shrug it off. And it’s making a difference.

Every time we make the decision to care, we claim our place as agents of change. We become the Ako ang Simula generation, defined not by age but by the refusal to entrust our future on the whims of a handful of men who have their own selfish agendas. We practice democracy as it’s meant to be. It may not change the world now, but it’s certainly changing us by making us think about what we can and should do for our country.

We may still lose this battle, mind you. Sotto, after all, survived the exposure of his link to a drug lord as he pretended to spearhead the fight against drugs. But the fact that we are still fighting means something. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who knows how it feels to be helpless in the face of evil, says, “There may be times when we are powerless to fight injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

If we do as he says, if we keep protesting with our words, actions, and votes, we may yet prove Galadriel right. Ordinary Filipinos, the ones you can find not in seats of power but in internet cafes, classrooms, or street corner tambayans, may yet change the course of our country’s future. I for one am willing to try.


*For the record, I am pro-RH bill. I believe it is pro-poor, pro-life, and pro-development. However, even if I were on the other side of the fence, I still wouldn’t want someone who has earned the nickname The National Embarrassment speaking for me.

**In fairness, it doesn’t take much to get me thinking of the LOTR. My brain practically lives in Middle Earth.

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An open letter to Atty. Hector Villacorta, from a humble blogger

Sir, if I might have a word with you.

Before Sen. Tito Sotto’s plagiarism extravaganza this week, I had no idea who you are. You moved in powerful circles in the nation’s capital while I quietly scribbled my thoughts in my little corner of the Internet. Alas, those happy days are gone. Now you’re everywhere I turn in the Philippine blogosphere, littering our space with your arrogant delusions. I’m tired of this. There’s an important debate going on regarding a bill that will drastically affect our country’s future, and you and your big mouth are sidetracking us.

I never thought that an unpaid blogger might have something to teach a senator’s chief of staff, but someone needs to stop you from making a bigger fool of yourself and your boss. Nobody in your office seems willing to do it, so I will. Listen up.

This all started when parts of an anti-Reproductive Health Bill speech made by Sen. Sotto were revealed to be lifted from an article by Sarah Pope, an American health blogger. He denied it, implying that bloggers are too insignificant to steal from, but everyone with a working bullshit detector just laughed in his face. When Sarah heard that a senator from halfway around the world not only stole her intellectual property but also, in her own words, “twisted the message of my blog to suit his own purposes against the women of the Philippines,” she felt the need to respond. (As an aside, see what I did there, when I attributed the words to the source? That’s a quote, Attorney. We’ll get back to that later.)

Now here’s where you come in. You stormed into Sarah’s comment section, dripping false humility and weary condescension, and proceeded to offer an ill-advised pseudo-apology that triggered a chorus of facepalms across the nation. Since then, more blatant plagiarism by Sotto has been uncovered, and you’ve spouted off more of your special brand of idiocy. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. It’s time for you to learn what you’ve been chattering about.

Let’s see. There’s a wealth of misinformation from you in this article from Let’s try to deal with that, shall we?


  • “Blog site is public domain.”
  • “Blogs are public domain. Anybody can use it [sic].”
  • “Bloggers, beware what you put out on the web. You should not cry if used by the web.”


No, Attorney,  a blog isn’t automatically in the public domain.  If an intellectual property doesn’t qualify for a copyright, or if its copyright has already expired, only then is it part of the public domain. Since blogs qualify for automatic copyright protection, and since that protection takes a long time to expire, the information that you and your staff copied for the senator was not, in fact, in the public domain.

You can’t evade  this. The Philippines signed several international copyright agreements, including one specifically designed to protect intellectual property online. We also have our own Intellectual Property Code. You asked where the laws are that would prove the crime of plagiarism was committed. Here they are, Attorney. And yes, just because these laws exist doesn’t guarantee implementation, but it’s kind of disturbing when a lawyer and a senator are either ignorant about them or actively defying them.


  •  “Nagtatampo pala sila pag naqu-quote sila.” (Trans: Their sensitivities get hurt when they are quoted.)


That was not quoting, Attorney, that was stealing. To quote means to properly acknowledge the source. You know, like I did with Sarah’s words up there and your own ridiculous sound bites. In blogging we do it by linking to whatever website we used as source.  In speech, you have to actually mention the origin out loud. In academic research and scientific literature, there’s a formal system that gives every first-time college thesis writer nightmares. I assume you are familiar with the last one, because you must be using scientific research for Sen. Sotto’s anti-RH Bill arguments, right? Right?

The point is, attribution is important. Without it, you are letting people believe that the words are your own, essentially claiming credit for them. In short, plagiarizing.


  • “Government is exempted from the copyright rule. As a general principle,  you cannot withhold information from government.”


I hesitate to venture into this territory because you’re a lawyer and I’m not. But the Philippine Constitution can be read by anyone, and maybe you just need a friendly reminder.

As far as I know, we are not yet a Big Brother society, though we do have a Big Brother television show. Here in the Philippines, we still believe that privacy is a right. Sections 2 and 3 of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights assure me that even the President himself can’t force me to let him read my high school diary and use it for his own purposes without a court order. Of course, if it were a matter of national security, I’ll let him read even the unsent love letter to my old crush, but only if he promises not to post it on Facebook.

As for the claim that working for the government exempts you from obeying the law, we only have to look at the cases of those Supreme Court justices charged with plagiarism to know that that’s just another one of your little daydreams. If you mean parliamentary immunity, sure, but it doesn’t make Sotto less of a lying thief. It just makes him a cowardly lying thief.

I’m sure I missed a few other things, but I’m tired. Obviously one of your staff knows how to use google, so next time, please just ask him to do some research before you use any big words in your interviews.

Or there’s also the possibility of Sen. Sotto just saying he’s sorry. Then this will all eventually blow over and we could go back to concentrating on the RH Bill. Just two words, Attorney. How hard can it be?


A blogger

UPDATE: Here is a neat timeline of all the events in the Sotto Plagiarism Extravaganza from the site that first broke the story. WARNING: May trigger a reflexive facepalm so hard it might break your nose.

GET INVOLVED: There’s an online petition for the Senate’s Committee on Ethics and Privilege to sanction Senator Vicente Sotto III for his misdeeds.  Why should you care? As the novelist Miguel Syjuco writes so eloquently, “If the senator can’t accept responsibility for something as paltry as plagiarism, where the penalty’s hardly more than a public apology, will he take responsibility in future issues where penalties are more grave? If the senator can’t address our grievances fairly when they’re so small, will he face future grievances that are more costly? “

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Grief in absence

A journalist was killed yesterday. For the second time in six years in my supposedly peaceful hometown of Palawan, a radio broadcaster in the prime of his life became another statistic in the list of Philippine journalistic killings. Gerry Ortega, a 47-year-old radio commentator, was instantly killed by a bullet to the head on the morning of January 24, 2011.

I remember the first time it happened. Well, not the first time, for the Philippines has a shameful culture of impunity regarding the journalistic killings that make the media one of the most dangerous arenas to work in. Assassination is a very real and ever present hazard for reporters and broadcasters who dare to oppose the rich and powerful elite. But the first time it became more than a news story to me was on May 22, 2006, when Fernando “Dong” Batul, also a radio commentator, was killed. Young (only 37 years old), intelligent, and charismatic, he stood firmly on the solid ground between cowardice and sensationalism. He was fearless, but he was also fair, and the people of Palawan loved him and knew he was on their side. His popularity, however, could not save him from a particularly brutal death: 12 bullet wounds were found in his body after gunmen ambushed him on his way to work. Four weeks before that, 2 grenades were lobbed at his home, a final warning after numerous death threats had failed to stop him from exposing the political corruption in the province. When even that was unheeded, the people of Palawan, me included, turned on our radios on the morning of May 22 to hear news of his assassination.

I do not know as much about Ka Gerry Ortega. I have been away from Palawan for years, and the first time I heard the news was this morning, on Twitter. With a heavy heart, I texted my dad, asking for details. What happened? Who could have done this? Was the gunman caught? It turns out the police were able to apprehend the shooter as he tried to escape, a man from Taguig, Manila, who is now declaring that robbery was his motive. I may not have all the details, but I doubt it. A thief does not shoot his intended victim directly in the head, in a public place at ten o’clock in the morning. Ka Gerry had many enemies, and one of them wanted him dead.

I do not know much about Ka Gerry Ortega, yet I speak out. I speak out because silence is what the oppressor wants, because silence is surrender, because silence is a desecration of every drop of blood that was spilled to give us a voice. Silence is apathy, and apathy gives permission for evil to prosper. I speak out to say that this cannot be condoned, this cannot be accepted, this cannot be forgotten. We as a people cannot call ourselves courageous when we allow the bravest of us to be cut down with impunity.

And I grieve. Knowing so little about the man, being so far away from home, still I grieve. I claim the right to mourn because I share the same love that Dong Batul and Ka Gerry died for, the love that Palaweño musician Pat Marquez sings of in his farewell songs for each of them. I mourn because I love Palawan, too, in all its incredible and fragile beauty and its peace-loving people who have somehow escaped cynicism against all odds. And with a fierce, deep pride I love my country, though that love is mingled with an inescapable sadness because I know that we can be so much more.  We can be so much more, but we’re not. Yet. Because in grief there is also hope that no amount of spilt blood can quench.

Rest in peace, Dong Batul, Gerry Ortega, and the 140 0ther Filipino journalists killed since 1986. You are not just statistics, and you will not be forgotten. We will speak out, we will grieve, and we will remember. And we will hope. Most of all, we will hope.

Tribute songs by Pat Marquez:

Di Mapipigil (for Dong Batul)

Ka Gerry (for Gerry Ortega)



Sexual assault and the courage to speak out

In Silsbee High School in Texas, USA, a cheerleader was kicked off the squad because she refused to cheer for her rapist during a basketball game. H.S., sixteen years old, was sexually assaulted by her fellow students, star athletes Rakheem Bolton, Christian Rountree, and another juvenile male. Bolton pled guilty to a lesser assault charge, and was given what basically amounts to a slap on the wrist: two years probation, a $2,500 fine, community service and an anger management course instead of an actual prison sentence. To add insult to injury, Silsbee school officials urged H.S. to avoid going to the cafeteria and joining the homecoming activities, presumably to preserve smooth relations within the school. Believing she had nothing to be ashamed of, H.S. refused. During that basketball game, she cheered for the entire team, but stayed silent during Bolton’s free throws, while the others were shouting his name. For this, she was dismissed from the squad, a decision that the court upheld, basically saying that it was her job, as a cheerleader, to cheer for her attacker because he happened to play for the school.

In this wrong-on-so-many-levels travesty, there is at least one bright spot: H.S.’s courage. She spoke out, stood her ground, and refused to cower. The tragedy is that instead of celebrating the girl’s spirit and supporting her healing process, the authorities refused to acknowledge her trauma. Unbelievable.

In the Philippines, where we place so much importance on saving face and keeping the peace, how many victims are ignored and hushed up, so that they won’t cause trouble? I know at least one of them.

Last year, I made an unexpected friend, whom I’ll call Maria. She was one of those vendors selling peanuts and sliced mangoes to the people strolling on Rizal Boulevard in Dumaguete. I bought something from her, then sat down to chat. Newly arrived here, she was among those devastated by Typhoon Ondoy in Manila and had found her way here hoping for a new life, despite not being able to speak Bisaya. We developed a friendship, and I came back to see her again and again. She told me her story.

Ten years ago, Maria lived in the slums of Tondo. She was only nine years old when her stepfather raped her. Her mother, despite believing Maria’s story, urged the child to just “let it go” and not tell anyone else, for the sake of keeping the family together. Fearing more abuse, she fled to her grandfather, seeking his protection. However, he turned out to be a child molester, too. Maria ran away again and lived for years on the streets of Manila. Nothing changed much when she moved to Dumaguete. When we met, her meager belongings were in a plastic bag and she slept beneath the acacia trees shading the Boulevard. She was only 19 years old, with a young daughter, and without a home.

As I listened to Maria, I found it odd that none of her anger (that she was aware of, at least) was directed towards her mother, who had failed to protect her vulnerable child. Maria fully believed that her mother had done only what she thought was best. After all, she told me, the family relied on her stepfather’s income for their needs. So she ran away, not only to save herself, but also to keep from disrupting the family dynamics. Her grandfather’s abuse was just another blow, another reason why she always sleeps with a knife close by. She can no longer afford to feel safe.

This chilled me, and it made me wonder how many victims of sexual assault are made to believe that their pain is not important, that they are on their own. How many women (or men, for that matter) are secretly bearing the shame, humiliation, and guilt that rightfully belong on their attacker’s shoulders? How many abusers are enabled and protected by the silence of those who should have spoken out? Anyone who has ever urged a victim of sexual violence to hold his or her peace is an accomplice in the abuse. It is a terrible betrayal of trust.

If one of you who are reading this is a victim of sexual assault, I hope you know that you have a right to speak out. It is not your fault. It is not your shame. And despite what you may have been told, you deserve to be heard. More importantly, you deserve to be healed. Find someone who will listen now.