Photograph by Resil B.Mojares from Wikimedia Commons. Art by Gica Tam
Culture Spotlight

The Last Good Senator: Vicente Sotto

He was called the most persecuted man in the Senate, a recklessly impolite and inconvenient figure—but the grandfather of the now infamous “Tito Sen” was also indelibly identified with one cause: press freedom.
Oliver X.A. Reyes | May 06 2019

A week before we head to the polls to vote for our senatorial bets, do we really know what we want out of the personalities we will elect? What does it really mean to earn a seat in our senate halls? In this series of ANCX essays, some of our distinguished writers reflect on the careers of past and present senators who have made the most impact, and created a significant difference.  

As with any other work place, the Philippine Senate has had its fill of cussed eccentrics. Voluble anger was the brand of Miriam Defensor Santiago, while Joker Arroyo was the parsimonious loner. Even Manuel Quezon, Senate President from 1916 to 1935, parlayed his fiery persona as integral to his political identity. In the public eye, these quirks proved more defining than the politician’s beliefs—perhaps since much of Philippine politics over the decades has been seemingly free of ideology apart from being for or against whoever is in power.

At first, Senator Vicente Sotto (1877-1950) appears to fall uncomplicatedly in that template. A Google Image search reveals a man who at varying ages of his life, preferred to scowl. “[Senator Sotto], although a majority man on the surface, was an oppositionist at heart”—so eulogized Amang Rodriguez upon the death of his parliamentary colleague and nominal foe. “An individualist and a man of strong opinions,” said proclaimed then-Secretary of Foreign Affairs Carlos P. Romulo, whose post-war America-friendly policies were opposed by Sotto. Had he lived (and he was already in failing health upon his election to the Senate in 1946), he likely would have joined ranks with Recto and Tañada and their advocacy of inflexible, unflinching nationalism. Sotto was the first member of Congress to file a bill seeking to nationalize industries such as retail trade, restricting the participation of foreign capital.

 

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Sotto though was indelibly identified with one cause—that of press freedom. Even to this day, long after his grandson has far surpassed the namesake in fame and tenure in the Senate, Vicente Sotto’s landmark law, Republic Act No. 53 (1946), remains popularly known as the Sotto Law. The Sotto Law is remarkable for its terseness — just two provisions that are direct to the point. It says that journalists cannot be compelled to reveal who their sources are, unless it is determined by a court or congressional committee that such revelation is demanded by the interests of the State. Before the Sotto Law, journalists had no such protection under law, and judges could at whim coerce journalists to betray their confidences. When President Roxas signed the Sotto Law, he proudly proclaimed that this was likely the first such law in the world, and that its passage “places the Philippines in the advanced guard of progressive liberalism.”

Vicente Sotto was a politician, a lawyer, a fictionist and playwright, but foremost a journalist. At age 22, his initial law school studies having been interrupted by the Philippine Revolution, Sotto established the first Filipino newspaper published in Cebu, La Justicia. It supported General Aguinaldo’s Philippine Republic, and was quickly suspended by the American military authorities. A few days after La Justicia was shuttered, the undaunted Sotto founded another newspaper, El Nacional. Sotto was immediately arrested by the Americans and imprisoned at Fort San Pedro on the charge that he was a revolutionary agent. Upon his release, he established still another newspaper, El Pueblo. He was then only 23. Sotto also established the first newspaper published in Cebuano, Ang Suga. The following year (1901), he was charged with libel for the first time, by the rector of the seminary of San Carlos, over an article entitled “The Miracles of Father Julia”.

Photograph by opac.filipinaslibrary.org.ph from Wikimedia Commons

Sotto would be acquitted, but this would be the first of many libel suits that Sotto would face. Faced with multiple criminal cases, he went into exile in Hong Kong where he established yet another newspaper, The Philippine Republic, through which he advocated Philippine independence by any means. The American government repeatedly sought his extradition; the British authorities then in charge of Hong Kong refused to comply.

Sotto returned to the Philippines in 1914 after a deal was negotiated with the Americans. He served a nominal jail sentence, then was pardoned by the new American Governor-General, F.B. Harrison. Upon his release, in 1915, Sotto founded yet another newspaper, The Independent. That same year, he was again charged with libel, accused of defaming labor leader Lope K. Santos. He was convicted. In 1917, he was disbarred as a lawyer by the Supreme Court, on account of another libel charge after he had criticized a judge in the pages of The Independent.

Sotto did regain his law license, but his relationship with the judiciary would be contentious for the rest of his life. Just one year before his death, the Supreme Court severely castigated now-Senator Sotto and again initiated disbarment proceedings against him. Despite the Sotto Law, the Supreme Court had ordered the arrest of journalist Angel Parazo, who had written a report claiming that there may have been leakage in the 1948 bar examinations, and who had refused to reveal his sources to the High Court. In doing so, the Supreme Court interpreted the Sotto Law to mean that the revelation of the journalist’s source fell within the interests of the State. Sotto himself disagreed, claiming that the decision put in evidence “the incompetency of narrow mindedness of the majority of its members.” He declared that “the Supreme Court of today constitutes a constant peril to liberty and democracy.”

“The Supreme Court can send me to jail, but it cannot close my mouth”

The battle that ensued was ugly. Justice Gregorio Perfecto, himself a cussed figure in the Sotto mold, brought up not only the Senator’s past convictions, but the twelve cases that he had unsuccessfully argued before the Supreme Court following liberation. According to Justice Perfecto, Sotto was “a despicable habitual liar”, an “unrepented blackguard”, a “disgrace to the human species” and “a shame to the Senate.”

“The Supreme Court can send me to jail, but it cannot close my mouth,” Vicente Sotto declared. “He was the most persecuted man, but he always came out with flying colors,” summed up Senator Tomas Confesor. Is it possible that the complex Vicente Sotto was in fact persecuted for cause? Even in this more liberal age, it is hard to see how Sotto’s harsh words could not evade censure from the highest court of the land. Perhaps the numerous libel charges were less about what Sotto said and more about how he said it — disagreeing to becoming agreeable. Heroes need not be likeable people; Vicente Sotto named his youngest child after Stalin. And there is the matter of his prosecution in 1907 for the crime of “rapto”, or abduction of a minor, for immoral purposes, the case that drove him to his Hong Kong exile. The woman involved in that case had consented, but was also below the age of 18.

That Vicente Sotto won repeated election to public office despite his biography as a recklessly impolite and inconvenient man should not come as a surprise. Filipinos have since elected Presidents who ran on the promise to be rude to the establishment. Imagery, not policy, is what thrives in our market. What is unusual though is how Sotto’s life experience as a much-harassed journalist actually resulted in the landmark legislation for which he still is remembered. Politics involves compromise, and too often a politician bargains away their own life experiences. We are fortunate that the Sotto Law is actually a good law, a foundation point for press freedom from harassment, a law that remains inconvenient to authority even as it stands for free expression and good governance.

 

Oliver X.A. Reyes is a lawyer and occasional writer.

 

Sources:

Manila Times, October 6, 1946

Manila Times, May 29, 1950