Institutions under attack
Perhaps, in a more benign age, it would be possible to look at the revocation of Rappler’s registration as an honest-to-goodness decision borne by the fair application of rules. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Rappler violated the Constitution and the Anti-Dummy Law because it had some form of “foreign ownership.” Various lawyers have since countered this claim—and noted, in any case, the lack of due process or commensurate penalty. Yet in a more benign age, perhaps it would be possible to believe that the commissioners were just following the law to the letter.
But these are Orwellian times. Looking at the big picture, we cannot but see institutions today being attacked for disagreeing with President Duterte, for criticizing government policies or programs, or for even just reporting on the actions of wielders of state power.
Within the press, we have seen various journalists and media outfits being harassed, online and offline, even if the supposed “crime” was to document the war on drugs, or publish articles critical of the administration. Like a modern-day Padre Damaso, the President’s pulpit-bullying of critics has eerily foreshadowed their fates.
Government officials and agencies have not been spared a similar affront, from the Vice President being shunned or disinvited to state functions to the Commission on Human Rights being threatened with a risible P1 budget. From the Commission on Elections to the Commission on Higher Education, from the Dangerous Drugs Board to the Department of Social Welfare and Development, there is a growing list of agencies whose chairs have been forced out, or not confirmed, in questionable circumstances.
Meanwhile, local government officials are threatened with death without regard for due process, their being “drug personalities” accepted as a given, as if the President’s “intelligence” were gospel truth. Barangay officials are intimidated into producing lists of “drug addicts,” or face expulsion.
Beyond the executive branch, we also see opposition lawmakers attacked, if not by Mr. Duterte himself, then by his minions and trolls. Despite the dearth of evidence and lack of clarity about the actual charges against her, Sen. Leila de Lima remains in jail. Opposition lawmakers are stripped of their budgets, with congressional leaders acting as if the money were theirs to give or take away.
Furthermore, we see both the Chief Justice and the Ombudsman being threatened with impeachment, while justices are pitted against each other — a divide-and-conquer tactic that has worked so well in various domains. P-Noy may have set the melee in the high court into motion, but the sins of the past do not excuse the sins of the present.
The assault on these institutions is made all the more jarring by the seeming exemption of others from the same standards. While some officials’ foreign travels are used against them, those of others are tolerated, even defended, such as that of Bato dela Rosa who watched Manny Pacquiao’s match in Las Vegas. While Rappler faces a shutdown because of alleged “foreign ownership,” the administration actually wants foreign companies to enter the Philippine market. In fact, some of the proposed amendments to the Constitution would lift restrictions to foreign ownership.
This brings us to the latest institution under attack: the Constitution itself. As more details emerge from some of the proposals — i.e., term extensions, no elections, a transition period during which the President will be given extraordinary powers — their true nature is revealed: a grab for (more) power, and a final blow to the few institutions we have left.
All our institutions — including the Constitution — are imperfect, and not exempt from critique. But given the existential threats they face, now is the time for solidarity with those who find themselves at the receiving end of repression. The road to authoritarianism, after all, is built by greed, but paved with indifference. Indeed, what is at stake in the Rappler case is not just the operations of a media company or the careers of some journalists.
What is at stake here is press freedom, and ultimately, our democracy, which — with every institutional attack—is looking more and more fragile.
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