Duterte’s feel-good moment
The ABS-CBN shutdown must have given President Duterte a tremendous feel-good moment: a vengeful victory directed at one of the most resilient oligarchs in the country.
Meantime, a bevy of suspects have been lined up for blame. Last touch in the train of causal events was Solicitor General Jose Calida, who warned the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) against issuing a provisional authority to ABS-CBN. But clearly, Congress takes most of the blame, failing to pass the franchise bill. Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Duterte allies were in no hurry to process the bill. This dilatory stance lined up with the President’s boast that ABS-CBN will never obtain a franchise. He has repeatedly and publicly excoriated ABS-CBN for a personal hurt he suffered during the 2016 electoral campaign.
No ABS-CBN franchise unless — and here Mr. Duterte leaves the door slightly open — the Lopezes will sell the business to another party. The collective antennae of Philippine society points to this party as Dennis Uy, a close friend of the President and close relative of Bong Go. The cognoscenti also link this buyout maneuver to the requirements of winning the next presidential election for Mr. Duterte’s hand-picked successor, Bong Go.
After the ABS-CBN shutdown, Mr. Duterte quickly made known that he had stopped opposing the ABS-CBN franchise since its CEO had already publicly apologized. He said he was “neutral” on the matter, and that Congress could do as it pleased. He was not predisposed, however, to take any actions — legal or creative — to reverse the NTC action. The President’s henchmen apparently did not know the President’s change of heart. Calida seemed pretty sure ABS-CBN had to be shut down. Could the President have been a victim of his own smoky communication style? Or everything was according to some plan? Some people read his apology to the Ayalas and to Manny Pangilinan a few days before as a tactic for “neutralizing” possible other oligarchs who might give support to the Lopezes. If this were no random blunder, what puzzles the people is, why do it during the time when the country is reeling from the effects of COVID-19, which have seemed so overwhelming that Mr. Duterte has looked defeated and frustrated in his midnight chats? Where does this electric shock fit into the strategy of “Bayanihan to Heal as One”? Surely the President must have been apprised of the possible unintended consequences of taking ABS-CBN off the air.
Apart from the 11,000 employees who stand to lose their jobs down the road, ABS-CBN, as the biggest broadcast network in the country, contributes directly and substantively to the effort to keep the people informed and educated on COVID-19 and the government’s efforts to get people in behavioral alignment with the goal of defeating the virus. ABS-CBN also operates its philanthropic foundation, which leverages on its network resources to generate and distribute relief goods to the neediest segments of society. Apart from this, the network also inspires its various talents to undertake their own social assistance efforts, with inspirational as well as functional benefits to the people. Given the weak overall organization of the government for a nationwide social amelioration program, ABS-CBN is clearly a necessary complementary institutional partner to government.
Well, there is method to madness. Consider Xi Jinping’s actions in the West Philippine Sea. Why step up the aggression and consolidation of control over the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea at a time when the whole world is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, no thanks to China’s mismanagement of the initial phase of the virus outbreak? China stepped up its aggressive actions by incorporating the disputed occupied islands into administrative regions—and then acted with surprised innocence as anger welled in the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries overlapped by China’s so-called nine-dash line. It’s all about taking and increasing power in times of crisis.
Mr. Duterte’s ABS-CBN gambit could be no different. The Xi action in the West Philippine Sea and the ABS-CBN shutdown both have the element of surprise, and the element of frustrating the Filipino people whose resources are tied up in the response to COVID-19. It also has the element of impunity—an overwhelming demonstration of naked power designed to strike shock and awe in the hearts of potential opposers, making them abandon their countermoves.
The Filipino fight against COVID-19 will be marked by two systemic aggravating setbacks, one emanating externally from the most powerful neighbor, China, and one emanating internally from the most powerful person in the country, the President of the Philippines.
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