Gag Order
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - February 21, 2020 - 12:00am

In past decades, when the quality of our national leaders was a lot higher than it is now, there is always a challenge to defend one’s position in Plaza Miranda. Today, our leaders seek a gag order instead.

The Solicitor General wants to gag the network from defending itself. And it is an all-encompassing gag that covers even private citizens, preventing everyone from expressing views on the ABS-CBN quo warranto case.

In the light of efforts of government’s propaganda machinery to promote the merits of the Sol Gen’s quo warranto petition, surely ABS-CBN cannot be faulted for expressing its response. After all, the issue at hand is very much of public interest.

I watched the report of Christian Esguerra the Sol Gen was complaining about. It is a pretty much a straightforward explanation of the technical issues. It looks like an individual effort on the part of a journalist to make the issues understandable to the ordinary broadcast viewer.

I have also seen posts on social media that explains the government’s side. Yes, let a thousand explanations bloom. And let the people decide what to believe.

A gag order is normally more in use in judicial systems that are jury-based. There is the theory that ordinary people more easily believe what they hear on media than trained lawyers and judges.

In filing a notice seeking a gag order, the Sol Gen is showing little faith in the ability of the Supreme Court justices to make up their minds based on the merits of the case.

One wonders why the Sol Gen suddenly got antsy. Lawyers I have talked to warned that the Sol Gen wouldn’t have filed the quo warranto petition if he has not been assured by a head count of justices that he will prevail. He suggested as much when he bragged why he never loses a case.

I don’t want to believe our high court justices can be persuaded behind the scene before a case is filed. But almost all of them have been appointed by Duterte. Given how votes in past cases seem to have a pattern that favors the administration, the filing of the case may indeed be just a formality.

Even so, why a gag order? If the Sol Gen did a head count before filing, why should he worry?

Or maybe the Sol Gen didn’t realize the overflow of support the network is getting here and abroad. They can claim all they want that press freedom isn’t the issue. It still has the optics of an attempt to suppress a network whose journalists have a reputation of fearless reporting.

If the administration succeeds in suppressing ABS-CBN through the judicial and congressional processes, it will be difficult to expect the survivors among mainstream media to perform their watchdog function as our Constitution envisions it. Self- preservation kicks in.

Maybe the administration didn’t expect the public reaction here and abroad to the quo warranto petition. Sal Panelo is now saying Duterte doesn’t really want to close down ABS-CBN. He is also urging us not to take Duterte literally when he rants about ABS-CBN.

No one will say, least of all those of us who had worked at the network, that ABS-CBN had not made mistakes along the way. But surely, the punishment cannot be the corporate equivalent of a death sentence.

We, who worked in the newsroom, can only shake our heads when some politicians accuse the network of playing politics. Surely, not the journalists in the newsroom who think nothing about risking their lives to bring the news truthfully to Filipinos everywhere.

Maybe some anchors and radio commentators have been playing politics. But they have been on the administration’s side and the network allows them under the principle of free expression.

The network probably played politics when it gave the late senator Rene Cayetano, and later on, his daughter Sen Pia Cayetano programs (Companero y Companera) and features in Maala-ala Mo Kaya. ABS-CBN created a political dynasty to which the Speaker belongs. But that’s the entertainment side of the network, the folks who deal with fiction, not news and public affairs.

Even the President had a regular program in ABS-CBN Davao which must have helped establish his tough image that the whole country eventually bought. But even that isn’t so much playing politics as giving a local executive a channel to communicate with the city being served.

It is almost unbelievable this horror story started because the network failed to air P2 million worth of regional campaign ads of Duterte in Mindanao.

But that was because they reserved late, didn’t have Comelec approval and it was the last few days for airing political ads.

By the time they got Comelec clearance, all available commercial slots had been taken. The network tried to return the P2 million but was told to hold it for the meantime. In a weird twist of events, the network was accused of estafa.

Now all those are details. There is a bigger picture of press freedom at stake. Closing down the network for the variety of issues being thrown against it today will not erase the fact that there will be a chilling effect on the rest of the industry.

The pettiness of how it all started will also make investors in other industries pause and wonder if they want to risk capital in a country where rule of law can be rather whimsical.

In Turkey, the judiciary delivered a stunning verdict acquitting civil society leaders accused of trying to overthrow the government in connection with protests in 2013 over plans to convert a park into a mall.

The high-profile trial was closely watched by rights groups, who had accused the Turkish government of using the judicial system to crack down on dissenting voices.

Turkish President Erdogan is probably more fearfully autocratic than Duterte. But the Turkish Court showed its independence. We may yet be surprised by our own Supreme Court. Who knows!

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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