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At Large

Friendly oligarchs and the bully pulpit

/ 04:05 AM February 19, 2020

When he described the presidency as a “bully pulpit,” US President Theodore Roosevelt was referring to the White House as an “excellent” or “first-rate” platform for advocating causes and airing views. This is what “bully” meant in those days.

But these days, “bully” has come to be defined as “a blustering, browbeating person.” And when a bully happens to occupy the presidency, the “bully pulpit” is employed as a weapon for intimidating enemies or the public at large, or else to attack people the President has set his sights on.

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And yes, deploy and employ the “bully pulpit” is what Rodrigo Duterte has engaged in in the last few months. Ostensibly, his targets were the “oligarchs,” commonly understood as the country’s richest families who, he claims, have abused their privilege by exploiting the working class through their hold on public utilities.

Hiding behind the cloak of a new class war, Mr. Duterte has waged a blistering attack on conglomerates like the Ayala Corp., the First Pacific group headed by Manny V. Pangilinan, and the Lopez family. The Lopezes are in for a “special” treatment because their “crown jewel,” the giant ABS-CBN network, is vulnerable. So far, the tactic seems to be working.

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Recently, the Ayala-owned and -managed Manila Water made room in its board (enough for a controlling stake, it’s said) for Enrique Razon, who could himself be considered an oligarch (port operations and gambling), but who happens to enjoy the support of Mr. Duterte and a sponsor, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Observers are noting an uncanny pattern: one set of oligarchs is simply being replaced with help from the administration by a new, “friendlier” set of oligarchic cronies. Aside from Razon, other Duterte cronies seen mopping up company after company, often with the use of “behest” loans, are Davao-based businessman Dennis Uy and the Villars who, with Cynthia in the Senate and son Mark in the Department of Public Works and Highways, have been further building their already extensive real estate and construction empire.

Monday’s editorial in this paper pointed to a possible motive for the President’s use of the bully pulpit: lowering the stock value of the targeted companies, making it cheaper and easier to acquire them. The editorial also pointed out a sickening consequence of this onslaught of greed: foreign investors and even local capital are shunning the Philippines, spooked by the blatant government interference and the fragile ground on which many of the crony companies have been built. It’s a scenario for economic collapse the likes of which we last saw in the fading years of the Marcos regime.

Now in the crosshairs of the Duterte corporate raiders and hunters is ABS-CBN, which had been shuttered when the dictator Marcos declared martial law, recovered by its owners after Edsa, and now facing closure once again with the looming failure to renew its franchise.

The President makes no bones that his determination to scuttle ABS-CBN’s franchise application is rooted in personal pique: the network’s alleged failure (or refusal, as he sees it) to air a campaign commercial of his. In the process, he not only resurrects the tired old “oligarch” theme, but also accuses (through Solicitor General Jose Calida) the network of receiving foreign investments (already conceded by the Securities and Exchange Commission to be legal and regular) and violating the terms of its franchise.

But should personal grudges and other possible ulterior motives be allowed to destroy not just a broadcast company but, by extension, through its chilling effect, the entire news industry as well as its entertainment adjunct?

Lost in the tug-of-war is the fate of the more than 11,000 direct and indirect employees of the broadcast giant. If the President allows tax-evading and illegal Chinese overseas gaming companies to operate just because these bring in income and create a few local jobs, why would he blithely ignore the plight of thousands — including their families — who stand to lose their jobs simply because he can’t let go of a grudge?

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Looming conflict in the Middle East and fears of worldwide contagion of the COVID-19 disaster have directly impacted our overseas workers. If they come home by the thousands, they would surely add to the growing number of jobless Filipinos. Why add thousands more to the list by closing down ABS-CBN?

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TAGS: abs-cbn, At Large, bully pulpit, COVID-19, Manila Water, nCoV, novel coronavirus, oligarchs, Rina Jimenez-David, Rodrigo Duterte
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