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Retelling the Vizconde story

By CHAY FLORENTINO-HOFILEÑA

Ever since the acquittal of Hubert Webb and his co-accused broke on social networks, online media sites, radio, television, and print media, airtime in the evening news was gobbled up by the “Vizconde Massacre” stories. And media practitioners are one in predicting that the story will run for several more nights for television and several more days for radio, newspapers, and online sites.

The case is inherently dramatic and provides excellent elements for a great narrative. Rich kids taking drugs accused of rape, victims all mercilessly killed and violated, star witness of the prosecution in a faraway land alleged to have lied, judge whose ruling was overturned by the High Court now sits in the Court of Appeals, widowed old man crying for justice left in the lurch, and once-young-now-aged men figuring out how to pick up the remaining pieces of their lives.

The Supreme Court’s decision itself can be mined for the insights it provides about us as a people. One cannot but be struck by the deep cynicism that we, Filipinos, have of our own systems. It’s not just the courts that we are critical of. We distrust the integrity of our own official documents such as our passport, well aware that they could be faked by syndicates in collusion with DFA consular insiders.

Hubert Webb, in a Photoshopped image used in his Facebook page.

Hubert Webb, in a retouched photo used in his Facebook page.

We also have a low regard for our Immigration officials, thinking them to be capable of altering entries on passports, even stamping arrival or departure dates as they wish—for the right price. We expect and even accept that government officials will use their position and their connections to their personal advantage.

This is all quite sad because as the decision itself pointed out, even judges whom we expect to be open-minded and fair, may have themselves become susceptible to speculation borne by cynicism. The decision in effect says that in this country, we tend to believe that anything is possible with the right connections and the right price.

When Noynoy Aquino ran for president, he inspired many to hope again. If this case is any indication, Filipinos are, more than ever, still looking for signs that there is reason to hope and to believe that things can still be better.

Jessica Alfaro, the prosecution's "star witness." (Photograb from ABS-CBN TV Patrol)

Jessica Alfaro, the prosecution's "star witness." (Photograb from ABS-CBN TV Patrol)

But where does one even begin to tell this complex story? The media’s first-take was actually quite predictable. Start the story by answering the basic questions “who, what, where, when.” This was easily accomplished by most media organizations. What probably differentiated one from the rest was the amount of details squeezed into stories, or the quality of video—as in the case of TV.

Unanswered Questions

Considering that there were rumors already circulating that a decision was imminent, as a reader not privy to the details of the case, I was on the lookout for a package of stories that went beyond the formulaic “who, what, where, and when” of reporting.

Judge Amelita Tolentino now sits at the Court of Appeals. (Photo from CA website)

Judge Amelita Tolentino now sits at the Court of Appeals. (Photo from CA website)

For instance, I would have wanted to know more of the “why” and the “how.” I would have wanted a different take on the usual stuff to better understand what this story is all about and why it should matter to us. I found myself asking:

1. Who exactly is Jessica Alfaro and where is she now?

2. How does one become an NBI informant like her—what are the requirements, the perks, the processes involved?

3. Did the takeover of the case by the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (headed by then Vice President Joseph Estrada) affect the judgment and appreciation of evidence by NBI agents and the lower courts?

4. How could supporting documents from the Philippine and US Immigration offices, as well as certifications from the US State Department and our own Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) be ignored by the lower courts? Was there political pressure involved?

5. Assuming Hubert Webb is innocent because he was in the US when the crime happened, what about his other co-accused? Did they also present equally compelling evidence? Who were they more than a decade ago and who are they now?

6. Why did it take this long for this case to be resolved at the Supreme Court level?

7. Are there other cases in the Supreme Court that have been pending for a longer time, and which do not involve high-profile personalities?

8. Who is Judge Amelita Tolentino? What is her track record and how did she make it to the Court of Appeals?

9. In retrospect, how did the media cover this story in the 1990s? Are there lessons that could be learned by reporters covering the judicial system?

10. Looking beyond the Vizconde case, how does media coverage affect judges and investigators assigned to high-profile cases, and how do they shield themselves from being inordinately rushed to a resolution of these cases?

The answers are important because the story is not just about Hubert Webb or Lauro Vizconde. A collective search for the answers which, maybe even the media may not be able to provide on their own, could jumpstart the process of fixing what appears to be badly broken systems. Newsbreak, independent journalism from the Philippines

CATEGORY: Blogs, Chay Florentino-Hofileña
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  1. good questions. what about: if alfaro was lying, why did she pick these particular guys to accuse along with webb; is it true that they weren’t really a barkada? and about biong: ever since he was released he has said to anyone who asked, well on tv at least, that he wasnt the one who cleaned up the crime scene but lauro’s relatives. and yet newspapers keep reporting that he was to blame etc.

  2. I hope somebody can do a “WikiLeaks” about what really happened during that gruesome night when Estrelita Vizconde and her two daughters were brutally murdered. Aside from Hubert Webb, who were the other personalities implicated into this case. Why did the NBI zeroed in on the high-profile personalities such as Hubert Webb et.al.? Why Alfaro has been so successful in duping the police, the judiciary and the Filipino people about her web of deception? Who helped here concoct the stories? Maybe somebody can do a re-profile of Alfaro following the latest SC decision. Where does she live? Who were his friends? What can they say about her… and so on…

    Ares Rufo in his article was correct. The NBI didn’t even bother to check or verify the statements made by Jessica like where she studied and other conflicting testimonies.
    Is the real mastermind or the killers still alive? Let’s wait and see!

  3. sorry for the slip-up. his friends should be her friends.

  4. angela, it would be interesting for us to ask more questions actually, and then try to source answers from those who might know. it’s not just the media who would have the answers. and if information is shared or pooled, we can collectively come up with our story or stories answering the very questions we asked.

  5. moroy, yes, certainly a group of whistleblowers or people who might have bits of information or details about the incident would help. if you know anyone who might know, do tell that person to pass on information to us :) and we can all try to piece together this puzzling story.

  6. Angela asks a great question, one that has bothered me all this time. If Alfaro was lying, why pick out these seven random people from the face of the earth to accuse? The question becomes all the more interesting if we accept the defendants’ claim that they hardly knew each other. So what made Jessica (or her handlers) single out these seven individuals? Did she have a grudge against each of them individually? But the defendants also claim that she didn’t really know them.

  7. Engr Jose Taganahan says:

    Question No.1 and 2 should be addressed to the NBI.The Decision of the lower courts could be a guide to answer question number 3 and questions number 4 and 5 were adressed in the Supreme Court Decision.There are simply so many cases that reached the Supreme Court is the answer in question no 6 and yes in answer to question number 7 there are decade old cases pending before the Supreme Court either civil or criminal cases. In questions 8 to 10, I guess each of us would have different answers

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