OPINION: When one man’s whims substitute for the national interest

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Feb 26 2020 09:07 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte, for the fourth year in a row, was a no-show at February 25 rites commemorating the anniversary of the 1986 People Power revolt that kicked out Ferdinand Marcos after two decades of dictatorship.

Duterte released a message, expressing hope that "the succeeding generations of Filipinos will also have the courage, strength, and determination to protect, defend, and preserve the liberties that we have won.”

In fact, Duterte has spent the last four years trying to outdo Marcos, a tyrant who shuttered the press in one fell swoop, killed thousands, tortured and jailed tens of thousands, and who stole enough from his people to merit a Guinness record.

Duterte's two-year martial law, now lifted, kept to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. But he has expanded his office's powers to monstrous proportions, marshaling all branches of government to shackle the opposition.

Critics call it “lawfare,” the weaponizing of the law against democratic dissent. Duterte built up the program as protests grew against the thousands of extra-judicial killings linked to his campaign against suspected drug users and dealers. 

He has used it to punish legislators, judges, activists, church workers, and civil society groups; farmers and indigenous tribes defending ancestral lands and dwindling forest and watershed areas; as well as opposition groups that expose mounting corruption in his government.

The President prefaces attacks on civil liberties with a claim to “saving” Filipinos – from narcotics syndicates, from terrorists, from the oligarchy, even from themselves. Like most autocrats, Duterte thinks his whims represent the national interest.

‘The enemy’

On the eve of the People Power holiday, Duterte’s closest aides laid down in graphic detail the real reason for his ire towards ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest broadcast franchise.

The President and his allies have accused the network of a slew of crimes: from tax evasion to violating the foreign ownership ban in media, to illegal expansion into the digital telecommunications sphere, to oppressive labor practices.

The House of Representatives, where Duterte enjoys a supermajority, is sitting on franchise renewal proceedings. The Solicitor General has filed suit at the Supreme Court to have the franchise declared null, barely 2 months before it lapses. 

Senators broke ranks, however, with a public hearing last week. There, state agencies, one after the other, confessed there are no serious cases against the network.

Even attempts to pit the broadcast owners against labor failed, with the head of a rank-and-file union describing the "torture" of anticipating a jobless future.

Personal beef

It took Duterte’s closest ally, Sen. Bong Go, to bare the real reason for the full-press against ABS-CBN. 

The President was mad because the network showed a negative ad — which warned how children could be jeopardized by a foul-talking, intemperate leader — while some of his local ads failed to air because of air-time limits under the country’s election law.

Senators criticized the outsized scale of the attacks and threats against any infractions the network may have been committed.

“Nothing merits a death sentence,” said Sen. Ralph Recto, who also warned of serious economic fallout from the closure of one of the country's largest taxpayers.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines presented senators with a petition, signed by more than 200,000 citizens, urging swift action on the franchise renewal. Overseas Filipinos – a bastion of support for Duterte – have swamped social media platforms to express dismay over the loss of entertainment and news shows that represent links to the homeland.

The President’s Senate allies swiftly backpedaled from their attacks. But there is yet no closure. Duterte’s legal counsel, and his running mate and now Speaker Alan Cayetano, continue attacking the network.

Not an isolated case

The attack on ABS-CBN is not an isolated case. Duterte sharpened his claws on Rappler, a small, independent digital news portal that faces half a dozen cases, with the specter of closure and jail for its editors. Its reporters are banned from any public event where Duterte is present.
The military has also arrested independent community journalists, accusing them of being guerrillas. Officers regularly slam media groups as “communist fronts” – demanding that journalists attack the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army before they are taken off the list.

It is not the press alone that braves the darkness. Judges, legislators, lawyers, church workers, teachers, students, rights advocates, labor unions have felt as much or more of the Duterte lash.

But never since Marcos days has the Philippine media come under such a systemic attack. Duterte is determined to target an entire profession for subjugation.

He will not succeed. We once fought and defeated a tyrant. We will fight this new one, every step of the way.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.