Defining ‘dura lex, sed lex’ in the context of ABS-CBN shutdown

May 7, 2020 - 7:15 PM
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Security guards stand outside the headquarters of ABS-CBN network following government orders to cease its operations, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines May 5, 2020. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)

The Latin phrase and legal term “dura lex, sed lex,” which translates to “it is harsh, but it is the law,” was used by some Filipinos who expressed support online for the move to close broadcast giant ABS-CBN

They cited the network’s supposed violations.

This phrase trended on local social media after ABS-CBN went off the air on the evening of May 5 in compliance with the cease-and-desist order issued by the National Telecommunications Commission.

Bills to renew or extend the network’s franchise remain pending in the 18th Congress.  

Calls to protect press freedom and dissent against the shutdown of the country’s largest broadcasting company dominated the Philippines trend list on Twitter after ABS-CBN’s shutdown was announced. 

Amid the criticisms against the NTC’s move, some Filipinos also praised the commission for its decision. The Latin phrase “dura lex, sed lex” and the hashtag #YestoABSCBNShutdown were mentioned in their posts.  

Several lawyers took to Twitter to define this phrase and interpret it in using the ABS-CBN’s case as context.

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen argued the blurry line between legality and justice.  

Dura lex sed lex is not an invocation to uncritically accept an unjust act. A lawful grant of power to a person/entity doesn’t guarantee that it is always wisely used,” Leonen said on Twitter.  

“At times, what is called legal may not be just. Our collective duty is to make sure the legal will also be just,” he added.  

Human rights lawyer Roselle Tugade likewise said that the practice of law should be more than just invoking it.  

“Law that’s calcified on ‘what is’, to the detriment of the people, is a law that betrays the spirit of freedom. Law ought to be more,” Tugade said. 

Another lawyer, Gideon Peña, stressed that “the people can change laws.”


Twitter page Law Students of Manila, meanwhile, suggested that the Latin phrase that should be used in ABS-CBN’s case is “Salus Populi Est Suprema Lex,” which translates to “let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.”  

How it started 

The sudden resurface of the Latin phrase “dura lex, sed lex” among non-lawyers may have started after presidential spokesperson Harry Roque mentioned it in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC), a separate entity not covered by a cease-and-desist order.  

Right after ABS-CBN’s early sign-off ceremony, Roque said he was instructed by President Rodrigo Duterte to extend his gratitude to the broadcast giant.  

“He has said that I should thank ABS-CBN for all the help that ABS-CBN has, in fact, extended. I was even under the instruction to enumerate the many things that ABS-CBN has done in connection with COVID-19,” Roque said.

Roque then said that Duterte, who was keen on shutting down the network, is a lawyer who must uphold the law even if he could have done “something” to prevent the closure. 

“And that is why if he could, he probably would have done something for ABS-CBN franchise, but the President is a lawyer. But the law may be harsh, as we said earlier, dura lex sed lex (The law may be harsh, but it is the law),” Roque said.

The NTC in a separate interview similarly defended the issuance of closure order, citing that it just upheld the law.

Whether it was harsh or not, it is still the law,” NTC Deputy Commissioner Edgardo Cabarios said in an interview with CNN Philippines 

“We have studied very carefully the issues behind. And we do not have any other option…If there are other options perhaps that is pursuant to other existing laws, baka yun po ang sinunod,” he added.  

Selective justice? 

Critics of the administration earlier argued that the justice system in the country is selective, citing quarantine violators public official Mocha Uson and Sen. Koko Pimentel who were not punished for their violations.  

Uson, deputy administrator of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, convened overseas Filipino workers at a resort in Batangas despite the strict prohibition against any social gathering under quarantine rules.  

OWWA Administrator Hans Cacdac, however, defended Uson and said that OWWA will investigate it after the health crisis ends.  

Pimentel also violated the quarantine protocols of a private hospital after he accompanied his wife despite having tested for the highly communicable disease. The Makati Medical Center management said he endangered the health workers, other medical personnel, and patients when he visited the hospital.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that his department will observe “compassion” for the lawmaker. 

Moreover, the national government also gave the Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs) green light to reopen despite alleged crimes involving their Chinese operators and amid the enhanced community quarantine that bans onsite work.  

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who opposes the resumption of POGOs’ operations, compared their case to that of ABS-CBN. She cited that the network’s shutdown affects thousands of employees.

Sa panahong napakahalagang maihatid ang mga impormasyon na dapat malaman ng publiko tungkol sa COVID-19 at sa mga programang makatutulong sa kanila,” the senator said.  

“Samantalang ang mga POGO pilit binuksan kahit na hindi naman ‘essential’ industry, bilyong-bilyong tax ang hindi pa binabayaran, at nasa gitna ng maraming krimen,” she added.  

YUNG MGA POGO BINUKSAN. ANG ABS-CBN PINAPASARA. Sa gitna ng krisis ay ipinapatigil ang operasyon ng ABS-CBN. Sa…

Posted by Senator Risa Hontiveros on Tuesday, May 5, 2020