It is no coincidence that the government has stepped up attacks on media just as it attempts to railroad charter change via a constitutent assembly.
Aside from moving against digital news outfit, Rappler, Duterte now threatens to file plunder raps against the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Congress is also delaying the franchise renewal for a network of 54 broadcast stations owned by the Catholic Church.
These new assaults follow Duterte’s warning to treat even legal political activists as “terrorists,” making them targets for a host of human rights violations; the return of the murderous “tokhang” program to the Philippine National Police; and impeachment efforts against Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno.
Duterte frames his attacks on the press by blaming “oligarchs” for critical reports that supposedly hamper governance, an argument lifted from the Marcos martial law playbook.
Statements by his aides underpin the fascist worldview of Malacanang. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque defends the government’s commitment to a free press by noting the President could have sent troops to padlock the offices of Rappler.
There are many ways of killing the press.
Presidential Communications head Martin Andanar notes with glee, that the Securities and Exchange decision cancelling the corporate status of Rappler would make it hard for the organization to do business.
That practically hamstrings editorial operations that, Andanar claims, can continue.
Among the changes sought in the Constitution is appointing Congress as arbiter on “responsible” freedom of expression.
Why is the Duterte government scared of independent media, including our free-wheeling social media platforms that his minions have exploited to the hilt?
It fears national outrage once the reality of Cha-cha is exposed.
The House of Representatives just passed a resolution calling for a constituent assembly. It railroaded the process, allowing only a short period of interpellation.
The resolution calls for a joint vote of Congress, which would effectively swamp the smaller, more independent Senate.
Duterte captured the imagination of Filipinos living outside of the national capital, by riding on long-festering discontent towards “Imperial Manila.”
Duterte framed his federalist vision as the permanent solution to poverty and conflict – claiming Metro Manila, with its 13 million population, has been siphoning off resources and imposing its will on the rest of the Philippines’ 103 million residents.
There is plenty of truth in the President’s diagnosis.
The national government has been known to run roughshod over environmental protection measures in the provinces. While Philippine law mandates decentralization of power, tweaks by the legislative and executive bodies on internal revenue policies have concentrated funds in the bigger and already rich cosmopolitan centers. Previous national governments also initiated fiscal programs that punished slow-moving provincial projects instead of aiding capacities, diverting monies to schemes in aid of electoral victory.
But the main measures underpinning the federalism initiative hardly solve these problems.
The Duterte regime would actually scrap existing constitutional provisions meant to narrow the development gap – putting Filipinos in rural areas at an even greater disadvantage.
Worse, these Cha-cha proposals sweep away safeguards for civil liberties and grant Duterte an indefinite period to enjoy the trappings of one-man rule.
Forget Duterte’s campaign pledge for an inclusive constitutional convention. Cha-cha allows a few hundred legislators to decide on the fate of the nation -- the height of self-interest as they reward themselves with tax exemptions for top-tier government officials, the President included, and pave the way for extended terms of office.
The government also wants to do away with the Office of the Vice President and downplay the role of the Senate, aside from mandating regional elections for members of the chamber.
It wants to wrest the Supreme Court’s exclusive role as judge of all electoral challenges pertaining to the Presidency, giving its authority to the Federal Assembly or parliament, composed mostly of lackeys of the Chief Executive.
The proposed provisions for the new federal constitution upend all of the President’s pledges to fight poverty and corruption, totally unmasking Duterte as a poseur, a fake progressive.
His populist image hides the goal of delivering this nation to his pet oligarchs and foreign patrons.
For all his attacks on Rappler’s foreign ownership, Duterte’s supermajority opens most industries, including media and extractive and agricultural sectors, to foreign ownership.
Deletions of constitutional provisions target workers rights to a due share of profits, agrarian reform and comprehensive rural development and protections for indigenous peoples now under a military onslaught on behalf of mining and plantation developers.
Former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. calls the Duterte Cha-cha “a lethal experiment, a fatal leap, a plunge to death, and a leap to hell..."
He is right. Those who seek to defend democracy can no longer compartmentalize causes.
We cannot say defend press freedom and turn away as a tyrant’s minions trample on urban poor suspects, peasants, indigenous folk, teachers, medical workers, labor unions, fisherfolk, environmentalists, church people and rights workers.
The press cannot go it alone.
In the Marcos era, we got our strength partly from a growing mass movement.
The history of media resistance moved in an arc similar with that of the general mass movement. No, media was part of the mass movement.
Neither can the citizens turn their backs on the media, no matter how aggravated they are by some errors.
A press silenced is the best guarantee for wholescale assaults on civil liberties and all other rights. A press cowed would leave the powerful free to carve up this country to their greedy hearts’ content.
We can set priorities right. Or we can wait as Duterte is wafted high to fentanyl heaven.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.