Saturday, February 22, 2020

Commentary: Another brazen display of power

Seemingly without any semblance of cognizance nor of comprehension of good governance, the Duterte administration strikes again in another brazen display of power—to try to take away the franchise of ABS-CBN—seen by many as a brute attempt to curtail the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of the press. As if the stonewalling in Congress—even the mere consideration of several bills renewing the ABS-CBN franchise has been tabled—is not enough, Solicitor-General Jose Calida has decided to provide a Plan B to ensure that the media giant has no franchise, either by having it revoked  using the tried and tested ammunition in his limited legal arsenal—a petition for quo warranto—or by convincing the majority of Congress—and, perhaps even the general public—about the company’s so-called wrong-doings. The franchise technically expires at the end of March this year, or in about six weeks. This, naturally, raises the question of timing—why only now. Calida would have us believe that it is only now that they were able to complete gathering evidence. Then, why go through this rigmarole of tedious documentation and the filing of a petition for quo warranto with the Supreme Court when the franchise will end soon anyway? As they say, the devil is in the details—and, literally, in other places. According to members of Congress, since bills to renew the ABS-CBN franchise have already been filed in this 18th Congress, these bills effectively extend the life of the franchise until the end of this Congress in 2022, which is also the finish line for Duterte’s administration, unless sooner terminated by an act of Congress. But here is where the dilemma comes in. Duterte wants ABS-CBN personally punished—by not getting its legislative franchise—for its failure to air his campaign material for the presidential elections in 2016. Duterte has said this unabashedly and repeatedly.
Being the self-fashioned strategist that he is, Duterte together with his advisers may have originally thought that the inaction of Congress until the expiration date of the franchise would lead to it lapsing into non-renewal, therefore, mission accomplished. However, the threat of the extended life of the franchise came as a belated realization. If Congress continues not to act on the franchise bills, what is looming largely would be his inability to punish ABS-CBN.

On the other hand, if he forces the issue on Congress now, he risks getting his desired outcome rejected by forward-looking politicians who see him moving closer by the day to being a lame duck president. Some of them may even display a sudden and unintended independent thinking. It has become a catch-22 if he relies on Congress. To make the situation more dire for ABS-CBN and its supporters, Duterte called his ever-obedient Calida to pursue another approach. Calida mustered all his legal prowess and came up with, lo and behold, his tried-and-tested petition for quo warranto, the same weapon that removed Sereno from being chief justice. This creates a specter of a no-win situation for ABS-CBN. This political maneuver of attacking ABS-CBN and threatening its very existence is undoubtedly a personal vendetta—Duterte’s way of retaliating against a media outfit that he has described as critical of him. But that is where he fails as a leader—by being hypersensitive and antipathetic to feedback that does not glorify him. But there are other things that meet the eye here.

This attack launched on ABS-CBN agitates other media entities. In fact, this affront has taken most of us aback.

In other societies, media is highly respected and regarded as a bastion of independent and critical thinking, an anti-thesis to government abuse, if you will. But what the media senses here is a not-so-subtle attempt to make them the drumbeaters of the administration, reminiscent of the Marcos years, where the brilliance and accomplishments of government are vigorously proclaimed. This could also be a round-about way of taking over a successful and profitable business enterprise. Rather than starting from scratch and enduring the birth pains of becoming a TV and radio station of the caliber and stature of ABS-CBN, which could take decades, it is definitely much easier and with fewer issues and challenges to assume ownership over a continuing business. After all, Marcos did this too for himself and his cronies. If you have been paying attention, Duterte advised the owners of ABS-CBN to sell the company. And, who among his business associates is observing and waiting on the sidelines to pounce on the opportunity? Perhaps it is he who must not be named. And, after the dust has settled, he will emerge as the hero who saved the 11,000 employees and their families from losing their means of livelihood and a staunch proponent of media presence in the country.

In the end, what Duterte is unable to understand—or, perhaps, he is merely refusing—is that running roughshod over anyone who gets in his way is not good governance. Someone should tell him that he was not elected king.