Marcos playbook?
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 26, 2020 - 12:00am

Because of the timing, the nation is now reminded that once upon a time, ABS-CBN was shut down by the Marcos dictatorship and the network’s facilities were taken over by the government.

And despite the sparse attendance at people power memorials to mark the 1986 revolt, those old enough at the time are reminding the nation of what life was like under authoritarian rule – including the shutdown of ABS-CBN and several other media organizations as well as the arrest of journalists.

Old-timers are warning that Rodrigo Duterte is borrowing a page from the playbook of Ferdinand Marcos; the President’s enemies say the thousands of drug killings make Duterte worse.

But it would be simplistic to think Duterte is Marcos resurrected. While both Congress and the judiciary are perceived to be Duterte rubberstamps, the President could not even get the emergency powers he had sought to untangle Metro Manila’s traffic mess. Neither could he deliver on his promised shift to federalism, which requires a constitutional revision.

Duterte did get Congress to go along with his declaration of martial law, first in Marawi and then in the rest of Mindanao, with extensions that lasted over two years. The lumads will dispute descriptions of it as a smiling martial law, but it was clearly nothing like the military rule during the Marcos dictatorship. And defense and other security officials themselves (plus Duterte’s own daughter) were among those who pushed for the lifting of Mindanao-wide martial law.

He also can’t get his security officers – except perhaps those angling for appointment to a civilian post with their approaching retirement – to go along with his pivot to China.

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These days Duterte must be feeling the pushback, even from a number of his allies as well as his economic planning chief, on his threat to shut down ABS-CBN.

Duterte is not the first post-EDSA president or public official to complain about media licentiousness – and (try to) do something about it, using every available means. Cory Aquino sued The STAR for libel over what she deemed to be unfair commentary. We were convicted by the regional trial court and ordered to pay damages, but it was reversed by the Court of Appeals when she was no longer president.

At the Senate hearing last Monday, ABS-CBN’s president and CEO publicly apologized to Duterte. This was for the network’s failure to air political advertisements that Duterte’s camp had paid for. The camp wanted to refute negative campaign ads against him that the network ran in the homestretch of the 2016 presidential race. Then senator and vice presidential candidate Antonio Trillanes had paid for the negative ads.

As Sen. Grace Poe pointed out, she and then vice president Jejomar Binay were also targeted by negative ads that aired on the network. The ads tended to favor their rival for the presidency, administration candidate Mar Roxas. Binay’s camp at the time also groused about the negative ads.

The Senate hearing revealed a regulatory environment that has failed to keep pace with rapid advances in information and communications technology. Laws crafted long before the internet reached the Philippines have not kept pace with a media industry that now runs on multiple platforms and can have a global reach.

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None of the post-EDSA presidents, however, moved to shut down any media organization, especially not over a personal grudge, and not through the fast-track quo warranto route in the Supreme Court taken by the usual suspect, Solicitor General Jose Calida.

And because the shutdown of ABS-CBN obviously will mean putting journalists out of a job, the broadcast giant’s woes have been turned into a press freedom and even employment issue. The administration resents this, as it insists that laws, rules and media ethics have been violated and there are legitimate reasons to revoke the franchise of the country’s largest network.

Critics are warning that Duterte’s battle with ABS-CBN could have a chilling effect not only on mass media but also on investors. The administration has brushed aside such warnings, and doused speculation that a new, Davao-friendly oligarchy wants to take over the broadcast network.

This attitude toward mass media is not unique to Duterte. Many years ago during a visit to Singapore, I listened to the information minister of the city-state, explaining to international journalists the Singaporean concept of the role of the press and media responsibility – and the business aspect of the industry, which the city-state believes it has the right to regulate.

That mindset has led to the shutdown or suspension of operations mostly of foreign media organizations in the city-state.

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But that’s Singapore – not exactly a model of press freedom, although I know Filipinos who would like that type of mass media environment, believing the Philippines has too much democracy.

Human rights advocates argue that when faced with licentiousness in the exercise of rights, it’s better to err on the side of freedom. Today I hear counter-arguments that the erring has reached such a level that it’s proving to be ruinous for Philippine society.

This yearning for Singapore-type governance is another manifestation of frustration with people power.

I always think of the city-state at every anniversary of the 1986 people power revolt. Singapore is known not so much for iron-fist governance but for efficiency, the rule of law and the strength of its institutions. The tiny state consistently ranks in the top five if not the top slot in international studies on transparency, ease of doing business and national competitiveness.

In the early days of the Duterte administration, I asked a Singaporean official about comparisons of the new Philippine President with the city-state’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew. The official sniffed that no one in Singapore is executed without first being accorded due process.

Unfortunately for the Philippines, 34 years after democracy was restored, what constitutes due process is subjective and highly politicized.

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