All eyes on Janet Napoles (no more)

ABS-CBN cameraman shooting the facade of the Philippine Senate on the wait for Janet Lim Napoles (Shot Nov 7, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

On guard in front of the Senate (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

None of us caught a glimpse of Janet Lim-Napoles when she arrived at the Senate on November 7. That, despite the best-laid coverage plans and the most pervasive camera placements in and around the compound.

That morning, media vehicles trailed a convoy that sped away from Napoles’s detention cell in Fort Sto. Domingo, Laguna. Some had lenses trained on it the whole ride, airing live via mobile transmitters.

Our broadcast facilities at the Senate were all set up the night before, fired up since 4 a.m., and waiting. Up to the last minute, news bosses talked with the Senate media bureau, haggling set-up spaces and running lists of personnel for accreditation.

The last time the Senate saw something this big was during the impeachment trialof former Chief Justice Renato Corona. Channels devoting special coverage again put up remote studios in allocated halls. Stages for live stand-ups were erected at the parking lot. Big news orgs like ABS-CBN fielded at least 6 reporter crews to the place. Robotic CCTV-style cameras were hung above the Senate session hall.

ABS-CBN reporter Ron Gagalac preparing to report on ANC from the Senate on Janet Napoles at the Pork Barrel Scam hearing (Shot Nov 7, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Ron Gagalac on ANC. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

But the convoy from Laguna didn’t go straight to the Senate basement where VIPs of previous famous hearings usually headed. Instead, it stopped near the gate, beside a restricted side entrance for employees. Cameramen rushed there too late to see anyone important.

With no confirmation if Napoles had indeed arrived, we assumed the convoy was a decoy and waited a little more. One of our producers said he had sources saying Napoles was not yet here.

But a few minutes later, Janet Napoles entered the Senate plenary hall from a holding area reserved for senators. She wore a police-issued bulletproof vest—her same getup when we last saw her being rushed to a jailhouse in Makati.

Face-to-face

Napoles sat on one side of the rectangular arrangement of desks, directly opposite the senators. Beside her were two public attorneys, hired by the Senate to fill in for Napoles’s private counsel, who resigned. The whistleblowers, also in bulletproof vests, faced her from the right.

Monitors on ABS-CBN OB van show Janet Lim Napoles (Shot Nov 7, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Split screens and Janet Napoles from the robotic camera. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

At our OB van, the technical director readied a split-screen template set against a graphic designed for this coverage. The producers wanted to see the reactions of Napoles, the whistleblowers, and the senators to each question and answer, so their shots had to be shown side-by-side.

Some of the Senate cleaning staff took a break to watch the Blue Ribbon Committee hearing on TV screens. Even the session hall had to extend seating capacity to 300. Among the restrictions inside—wearing shirts with political statements. Outside, militant groups came to protest.

Everyone wanted to hear what Napoles would say. None perhaps more than Sen. Miriam Santiago. Santiago had tweeted that she would get up from her “sick bed” just to grill Napoles.

Miriam’s turn to interrogate Janet was riveting, even entertaining. But after appealing to conscience, warning against possible death, employing reverse psychology, dispensing legal advise, and even name-dropping suspects, it grew frustrating.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago holds a press conference after interrogating Janet Napoles  (Shot Nov 7, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

After the interrogation, a presser for Senator Miriam. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

The other senators rephrased their questions and asked in stages, but they got nothing.

Napoles would say variations of these:

  1. “Hindi ko po alam”;
  2. “May kaso na po kami sa korte, BIR, Ombudsman, etc.”;
  3. “I invoke my right against self-incrimination.”

Someone took count–19 times for “I don’t know”, and 22 for “I invoke”. Filipinos have seen too many Senate hearings not to find those answers oddly familiar. Some waited for the usual final card to be played: the appeal to health.

The hearing looked futile–its bird would not sing. But Blue Ribbon Committee chairperson Sen. TG Guingona saw it differently. He had previously fought to summon Napoles to the Senate floor.

Contrasts

Guingona said the contrast between Napoles’s “general denials” and the whistleblowers’ “positive assertions” was clear to those watching. For him, the hearing allowed the public to scrutinize Napoles’s credibility.

Whistleblowers Marina Sula, Merlina Suñas, Benhur Luy and ,  Gertrudes Luy face Janet Napoles at the Senate (Shot Nov 7, 2013 by Allan Pingol, ABS-CBN News)

Janet Napoles surrounded by lawyers from the Public Attorney's Office (Shot Nov 7, 2013 by Angel Valderrama, ABS-CBN News) Beside Napoles, public lawyers she first met on this day. Facing her, her accusers. (Shots by Angel Valderrama & Allan Pingol, ABS-CBN News)

Santiago, meanwhile, suspected that Napoles was torn between protecting her alleged godfathers in government and saving her self. Santiago insisted though that there were bigger fish in the alleged pork barrel scam than Napoles.

The entire time, our lead anchor Lynda Jumilla sat in the Senate studio listening and typing notes. When the session called a break–like when Napoles asked to eat–the ABS-CBN News Channel would ask Lynda to fill in with a report. Occasionally, Channel 2 would also air Lynda’s updates.

Aided by a producer and two coordinators, Lynda invited senators and Justice Sec. Leila de Lima to talk with her live. And while there, she still managed to get first the sides of senators who were absent.

Lynda was sent a picture of Sen. Jinggoy Estrada watching ANC’s coverage in the United States. Then, after Senator Santiago unleashed diatribes against Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Sergio Osmeña III, Enrile texted Lynda a reaction. Osmeña even went down from his office to be interviewed live.

Lynda Jumilla interviews Sen. Francis Chiz Escudero the day Janet Napoles faced the Senate. (Shot Nov 7, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

On ANC: Lynda Jumilla interviews Chiz Escudero. Click the pic to watch. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

As stealthily as Napoles came in, so did she leave. Few looked for her once the hearing ended. No media convoys followed her back to Fort Sto. Domingo. Reporters were busy getting reactions and filing stories.

Napoles was bumped off the top story during the primetime newscasts, when President Aquino came on TV pleading with Filipinos in the Visayas to evacuate their homes from nearing super storm Yolanda (Haiyan). His live speech cut into Ron Gagalac’s wrap-up report of the hearing.

The typhoon was in the minds of half the country that night, and the tragedy that followed took their attentions entirely off Napoles and the pork barrel scam.

But it did not stop some from reminding everyone what could have been avoided had not the nation’s taxes been tampered. Actress Angel Locsin asked that Napoles be shown TV coverage of the typhoon in her cell, hoping that she might feel remorse over what she allegedly did.

Napoles’s first face-to-face with the Senate was already set late due to an earthquake, an election, and a holiday. They said this was not the last. But after Yolanda, who knows when the next will be.

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