Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

SC’s recent decision on National Artist issue does not help clarify controversy over Alvarez et al.--- it adds more confusion as to where to draw the line between two recommending boards’ authority and presidential prerogative. GMA’s EO 236 clarified that prerogative, but SC failed to dig it up---or ignored it.

Cecile Alvarez, Pitoy Moreno, Bobby Mañosa and Carlo J. Caparas
That four National Artists included by former President Macapagal Arroyo in the list of State-honored Artists for 2009 were struck down by the Supreme Court in a decision the other day was truly unfortunate.

The award to comics King Carlo J. Caparas was controversial from the start and one of the more vocal opposition to his award came from National Artist for Literature Frankie Sionil Jose. Few, however, would question the choice of Cecile Guidote Alvarez, founder of the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and president of the 100-member nation International Theater Institute and its spokesperson for culture and development, and director of Earth Savers-Unesco Artists for Peace and Unesco Dream Center.

Even fewer could question the nomination of that architect of architects, Bobby Mañosa, he of the native themes and indigenous materials, and undisputed haute couture guru Pitoy Moreno.


Rather, it was the process of selection that was assailed by critics as flawed, and which the SC magistrates obviously listened to. But evidently research inside the High Court was lacking, as otherwise it would have discovered EO 236, which was signed on Sept. 19, 2003 as a mechanism whereby GMA firmly underscored the President’s prerogative  to confer the Order of National Artists (created by President Marcos through a presidential decree) and making the role of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines advisory and not mandatory on the Chief Executive.


The SC magistrates’ near-unanimous decision last Tuesday, however, was far from clarifying. In fact it was confusing.

The justices argued that Arroyo did not commit any grave abuse of discretion when she excluded composer Ramon Santos as NCCA/CCP nominee for Music, because“the recommendation of the (NCCA) and the (CCP)’s boards was not binding but only DISCRETIONARY (emphasis BOC’s).”

The SC stressed that, according to its spokesperson Teddy Te, “By the power of control, the President had the authority to alter or modify or nullify or set aside such recommendation or power. It was well within the President’s power and discretion to proclaim all, or some or even none of the recommendees of the CCP and NCCA boards, without having to justify his or her action.” 


And yet, the SC was quoted as ruling, in the case of “extra”awardees Alvarez, Caparas, Mañosa and Moreno by then President GMA, that she violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution when she gave “preferential treatment” to them. The SC accused GMA of violating the laws and failing to observe rules, guidelines and policies of the NCCA and CCP with regard to the selection of nominees, which “proscribed her from having a free and uninhibited hand in the conferment of the award.”

In other words, what the SC is saying---confusingly---is that the President could proclaim all or some or even none of the NCCA/CCP boards’ recommendees for National Artist, but he or she could not award anyone of his or her own choice. Following this reasoning of the SC, the question that arises is, if the two boards’ recommendation is ONLY DISCRETIONARY, who then has the power to appoint National Artists? If not the President, who?


The artists’ world, save for a small band that expressed support for beleaguered President GMA’s action then, rallied together and hit her left and right. Artists being what they are---a very self-centered group necessarily super-bilib sa sarili if they have to survive their dog-eat-dog world---they exploded the issue in media and hailed the appointment of the four artists to the SC, in a bit to stop their proclamation.

Cecile Alvarez was the lightning rod that drew much of their negative reaction, as she was then NCCA Executive Director appointed by GMA as well as a staunch anti-Marcos freedom fighter in the US. Not being able to hit GMA directly, most of the attacks by Imelda’s artist minions attacked the “poor timing” of Cecile’s selection (that’s right, it was poor timing indeed---she should have been awarded years back for her pioneering grassroots educational theater work). 


In fairness to Cecile, although this fact was already beclouded by emotionalism and politics, she ceased to participate in committee deliberations once she was nominated by Fr. James B. Reuter, a Magsaysay Awardee like herself, National Artist Alejandro Roces and Sen. Edgardo Angara, then chair of the Senate  Committee on Culture (as the slings and arrows flew from all directions, however, Angara disappointingly did nothing to defend her despite her slavish work to promote Baler as a culture capital).

I recall that as columnist of a broadsheet as the controversy raged in 2009, I had to take deep breaths about the nostrils-spitting arrogance of many artists. Somehow I was reminded of the quarrel of the fallen angels with God as told in the Bible, where they began to think they were more powerful than their Creator.


Even during the time of former President Fidel Ramos, who insisted on naming the late historian Carlos Quirino National Artist in a new category, “historical literature,” there was a lot of quarrel about how far the two boards’ authority could carry them and where presidential prerogative could intrude and prevail in this issue.

Interestingly, at a congressional hearing over the Alvarez et al. issue, minutes of the meetings of November 6 and December 4, 1997 of the NCCA during the FVR era came to light. And here the artistic firebrands seemed far humbler.


Stated in those minutes was the NCCA/CCP boards’ conclusion that “it is within the President’s prerogative to create new categories as well as declare awardees without the benefit of passing through a formal selection process…” It was also acknowledged by the NCCA/CCP trustees that the President has “the authority and prerogative to create National Artist categories, to disapprove recommendations made to him by the NCCA and CCP, or to designate National Artists on his own initiative.”

Probably intimidated by the could-be-gruffy  ex-policeman-President, the artists appeared cowed into submission; but owing to GMA’s widespread unpopularity by 2009, they regained their horns by then and fought her ferociously through proxy Cecile. The battle turned ugly and the band of four became casualties, no matter how hard Cecile and Carlo fought in the media.


But what the SC magistrates failed to reckon with was the authority of the President to name awardees from outside the NCCA/CCP Boards’ list as firmly established by EO 236, issued by PGMA in September 2003, six years before the Alvarez et al. controversy erupted---which remains part of the law of the land until it’s stricken off. I suspect that the SC magistrates had no knowledge of Sec. 9 of this EO when they made their recent ruling.

As Commissioner Carmelita Abdulrahman of the KomisyonngWikang Filipino and currently president of Pasataf, the biggest organization of language teachers in the country, explained, EO 236, headed by the Executive Secretary with five high-ranking officials of the Executive Department as members, sought to rationalize all government awards into an Honors Code, creating an Honors Committee to assist the President in selecting National Artists.

This committee has the capacity to liaise with appropriate government agencies such as the NCCA and CCP for preliminary recommendation and selection, as well as to receive other nominations and consult with expert resource persons in various fields---all aimed to provide additional advice for the President’s judgment.


Comparison is inevitably made with the National Medal of Arts program in the US, where the President is given a free hand as Head of State to select from names submitted by the National Council of Arts and the National Endowment of the Arts, as well as to include those of his own initiative---as long as it does not exceed a list of 12 artists annually.

In the US program there appears to be no clouding the authority of the Chief Executive---HE DOES THE SELECTION.  In our setting, this is being made far from clear by arrogant artists, and the highest court of the land just added to the reigning confusion.

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