[OPINION] Dura lex and salus populi: TV stations and the duty of government
A friend of mine mentioned that ABS-CBN would’ve been better off waiting for the police to force them to close instead of simply signing off, suggesting that it would gain greater uproar from the people. I, for one, perceive that what the network did was a smarter political move, a safe yet effective application of realpolitik. (READ: TIMELINE: Duterte against ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal)
My former students in Philippine Government and Constitution (PGC) inspired me to write this essay. I always include legal maxims when teaching the Constitution, and now such maxims are being used in the Government v ABS-CBN debate. Since PGC is not offered in college anymore as a general education course, I take this opportunity to share this important information for anyone who reads. A bit of contribution for the future (re)building of our state.
People debate on the legal obligations of ABS-CBN, along with the politics of the motives behind these events. I focus on politics; however, I won’t argue motives. This one is a reminder of the essence of governance, the duty of government, especially during a pandemic. It is in the yin and yang of two maxims, timeless wisdom from the ancient civil law of Rome, both of which now float on social media; Dura lex, sed lex v Salus populi suprema lex esto.
Such statements are common in the halls of law school. Both are also political maxims.
Dura lex, sed lex translates to: “The law may be harsh, but it is the law.” I can imagine Miss Minchin or Minister Frollo of The Hunchback of Notre Dame speaking those lines. Nonetheless, it is very important to society. I like it, a very nice way to refer to law as the foundation of order.
Salus populi suprema lexesto is “the welfare of the people is the supreme law.” It already advertises its own importance, and more so, it tells what is important. I tell my students that these are the duties of government, and are enshrined in Article II, Section 4 of the fundamental law of the Republic.
Two sides of the same coin. Monarchs throughout time and across the globe have wielded these two duties, symbolized as a sword and as a rod (a baton, or a scepter). Remember your CAT or ROTC Commandant? Even your officers had swords and batons. Commanders-in-Chief also have the same. The Pharaoh of Egypt held a shepherd’s crook along with a flail. All these symbolize the interplay of Dura lex, sed lex and of Salus populi suprema lex esto. One commands for the betterment of the people (shepherd’s crook, scepter), the other implies punishment (sword, flail).
The origin of duty
There is another "two sides of the same coin" in this debate. Having both coins will help further understand the political debacle – the state of nature. It’s a political term, denoting the time when there was no government and no law. From this state, we, mankind, proceed to establish these two important things for society. One side is a version that came from T. Hobbes, and the other from J. Locke.
Hobbes said that the state of nature, since there’s no law nor government, is dangerous. A dog-eat-dog world, where man will do anything if he has the capacity to do it, even steal or kill. Because it is dangerous, people decided, let’s create a government. It will have the capability to make us surrender to it, so that it can enforce safety.
Locke thought better of man. He considered the state of nature as inconvenient, “that man has intellect and behaves because of this intellect.” However, people’s intellects clash, and people’s rights clash. Society decided, so that life may not be as inconvenient, let’s create a government, and it will enforce order."
How does the interplay of these coins of opposing ideas resolve, especially in a situation where the government institution and one of the institutions of free expression are at odds? The government has issued a command. There were obligations that the network needed to comply with the law. It is a period of quarantine. Employees lose jobs as their institution is shut down. People stay in their homes, worrying about what goes on around the world, needing to know about society, economics, politics, health, and even lifestyle issues.
What is the Supreme Law?
A colleague said that aside from Philippine Government and Constitution, Logic is also another important course missing now. And my colleague is correct. Logically, this debate is not a zero-sum or winner-takes-all game. In fact, government needs to remember the state of nature, and why it was created – to both serve and protect. Yes, I hark to the mottoes of many a hand of various executives around the world. (READ: Framers: ABS-CBN shutdown order defies 1987 Constitution)
It’s pandemic time, for crying out loud! Will the state fall if ABS-CBN is unable to comply with its mandates from NTC? Will it be a source of danger to the community? Is the Republic better served by hounding it? Or is it a service to the people, that the people continue to have multiple sources of information? There is a reason why people cannot rally outside for ABS-CBN. There’s a virus loose out there. There’s a reason why banks are suspending interbank fees, that credit card companies are allowing payment extensions.
There is a reason why Salus populi suprema lex esto advertises its own importance. It’s because, the law may be harsh, but before it thinks to be harsh, it better makes sure that it’s for the welfare of the people. – Rappler.com
Ronald M. Castillo is currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Santo Tomas. This article is a narrative of his opinions. He is also an advocate of the environment, particularly the zero-waste lifestyle. As a political analyst, he likes to study institutions as if they were buildings, networks as if they were streets that could be mapped, and government as a machine, to see what makes it tick. He can be reached through email@example.com.