During the last three months of the coronavirus pandemic Filipinos have seen at least three significant manifestations of the ruling government’s obsession with its effort to suppress opposition and criticism. First, the the conviction of Rappler chief Maria Ressa for libel, the first of many harassment cases against her currently pending with the courts. Then, the vigorous passage of the “Anti” Terrorism Law, which among other things, allows a council made up of the President’s alter-egos to authorize the warrantless arrest and detention for up to 24 days of any person they may designate and suspect as “terrorists”. Then, just today, the denial by the House of Representatives of a new broadcast franchise to the country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, effectively shutting it down and depriving millions of Filipinos, especially those in far-flung islands of this country, of crucial information and entertainment in this pandemic. Other recent manifestations of suppression include violent dispersals and numerous arrests and detentions imposed against ordinary citizens who have taken to the streets their expression of resistance.
I have my own opinion on some of the issues ABS-CBN was implicated in–notably that of its labor policies regarding “talents”, and of the tax avoidance schemes it employs to legally avoid billions in tax assessments. (That being said, my gripe is really with the government’s labor and tax framework that legally allows all this). But now is not the time to discuss all of that, when the public service rendered by the country’s largest and most pervasive broadcaster is ever more important in a public health and economic crisis. Besides, some of the issues thrown at ABS-CBN are for courts to resolve, not for congressmen to speculate on, or at the very least they can be resolved by Congress without shutting down the network and depriving employment to the company’s 11,000 employees.
For the rest of the issues, there is, in my opinion, nothing technically illegal with what ABS-CBN does because, as I’ve mentioned, the very legal framework that exists today allows the conduct of everything the government is alleging against the broadcaster–from the entry of foreign investment in mass media through depositary receipts, to the tax deductions and incentives ABS-CBN is able to claim to save on taxes, to the labor contracting scheme it hires its workers and ‘talents’ under.
The shutdown of the network has to be taken in context. President Duterte has an axe to grind against the network, which has displeased him even before he was elected. In addition, ABS-CBN has been consistently reporting the realities that this country is facing, exposing many of the failures of the present administration and the incompetent political appointees running many of its agencies.
The message the Duterte administration and its allies is trying to deliver is abundantly clear–if you dare challenge and displease the President–the government will use the might and resources of state institutions to prosecute and persecute you. It is utterly ridiculous when supporters of this government claim that all proceedings against government critics are conducted impartially by independent branches of the government and have nothing to do with the expressed and unequivocal desires of the President. I mean, really? Do they even listen to his speeches? He is quite literally a dictator–dictating what he wishes to happen to his enemies. From the prosecution and imprisonment of Senator Leila De Lima, the removal of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the cases filed against against media institutions like the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler and ABS-CBN, the relentless propaganda and military offensives against leftists, activists and common folk who dare protest against this regime–do they honestly think they all happened and are happening by coincidence?
The government will invoke the law and throw everything but the kitchen sink to justify taking down its enemies by hook or by crook. All this is meant to serve as a chilling effect on everyone who would dare challenge this administration or expose what’s happening in this country. To be fair, I am not saying that high profile personalities of the opposition are saints nor that I am certain they did not commit any infraction of the law–but my goodness, the double standards and selectivity of this government is astounding. While it is harassing its enemies with cases left and right, it is allowing all its other allies and nincompoops in government scot-free with their costly mistakes, atrocities and transgressions of the law. It was never about the pursuit of justice and the rule of law–it has always been about selectively invoking government processes as weapons against the opposition with the singular aim of stifling the growing discontent against this government.
The worse damage, to me, is this–it has cultivated an unprecedented culture of Presidential patronage and ass-licking that has impaired the impartial functioning of our democratic institutions. Those who do not toe the line will be met with the brute force of a vengeful President. Otherwise, allies are free to go about their merry ways.
And what an opportune time to impose fear–when discontent is bound to multiply with the catastrophic handling of the pandemic and the inevitable economic recession and massive unemployment that has and will continue to take place in this country.
It is tremendously frustrating. The difficult challenge is to draw strength from one another, and persevere despite the fear and the frustrations! The immediate future may look bleak, but a better future lies ahead to those willing to forge it!