Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Closure of the giant ABS-CBN couldn't have come at a worst time for the Filipinos

The recent vote in the House of Representatives on the fate of the country's largest TV-radio station, ABS-CBN, did not come as a surprise at all, considering the pressure that President Duterte had applied on the solons in that chamber.

After 12 public hearings over a month on the issue of the giant network's legislative franchise---conducted principally by the House Committee on Legislative Franchises, chaired by Palawan 1st District Rep. Franz Alvarez, together with those of good government and public accountability--- these committees, comprising 85 members in all, voted with 70 members for SHUTTING DOWN the network, 11 for renewal, with two members inhibiting and another abstaining. 

The shutdown became effective after Congress members voted against giving the network another 25-year license to operate. It will be recalled that ABS-CBN was shut down last May 5 by the National Telecommunications under the Office of the President---a day after its 25-year franchise had expired. Some 11,000 permanent as well as freelance contract workers would be affected.


Reports swirled that the marching order to Congress to deny the giant channel a franchise renewal came straight from the Office of the President. I would imagine that such a most significant move of tremendous and far-reaching consequences would have to come from the powers that be.

It was, however, a cause lost not without a fight. Rep. Carlos Zarate of the minority bloc made a last-minute plea for approval of the franchise. His line:  why punish a company that did not breach our laws. But another solon, Rodante Marcoleta of the majority bloc and one of the channel's fiercest critics, argued that "regardless of legal argumentation in favor of ABS-CBN, "it is the will of Congress that should be accorded due respect." And that is closure.


 But of course, it was left to House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, handpicked by President Duterte to head the lower chamber, to deliver the most revealing stand in support of the huge media power-play.  Cayetano argued that "it's not press freedom that's at stake here, but the question of media protecting its business interest." Toward this issue, the House chief grandly proclaimed that it will be "a conscience vote." 

Far from being a "conscience" issue, however, everyone can see that in reality it's a huge power play between two giants. What I lament most are two things:  the blow to media freedom and the poor timing of the shut-down.


This move to block the renewal of ABS-CBN's franchise cannot but be perceived in many circles as a blow to media freedom, and it has sent tremendous shock-waves to other Southeast Asian nations, as the Philippines---long a political ward of the United States---is viewed especially in this region as the bulwark of all kinds of  innate as well as acquired and practiced concepts of freedoms. 

This was highlighted most especially after the EDSA Revolution of 1986, when ruling dictator Ferdinand Marcos was thrown out by the celebrated EDSA People Power. To the outside world that has been following the Philippines' supposed progression toward political maturity, however, this recent move by the House of Representatives to shut down the giant media network would be tough for the outside world to understand in that light. 


Why the poor timing of the shut-down of ABS-CBN? Many reasons, aside from shattering the democratic image of this country in the eyes of a world that values press freedom so much. It comes at a time when vital news information about the Covid pandemic sweeping the country is badly needed. Because ABS-CBN is the country's largest and most popular media channel, it is absolutely necessary to keep it operating---so the communication lines are kept open from the central government down to the smallest barangay in the country and its citizens. No other channel---be it government or private---can rival the reach of ABS-CBN.

The shut-down is very poor timing in another sense.  Business is bad in these pandemic times and will doubtless continue to be bad in the next two or three years. As a result of the shut-down of the giant network, some 11 million permanent as well as free-lance Filipinos somehow involved with the network were thrown out of jobs.


This, however, does not take into account the  tens of thousands who are not directly employed by the network, but who are involved in the MANUFACTURE AND MARKETING of local products most effectively advertised by this largest network in the Philippines.  It is estimated that some 69 million Filipinos would be affected by the loss of ABS-CBN and the kind of information analysis, commentary and public service it has been providing over the decades. 

There is no question that the closure of ABS-CBN will bring all kinds of economic woes to the country at a worst time---amid a raging deadly virus pandemic that has inched frightfully toward our shores. Why the closure when problems could have been threshed out and solutions and compromises studied and even offered by both sides?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Nov. 2 presidential elections in the US have got to be the strangest such elections---what with the Face Mask as THE Major Issue. Will History rule that for want of a mask, Donald Trump lost his re-election? You can bet on it!

The US elections to choose the 46th President this November 2nd have got to be among the STRANGEST of political exercises in that country in nearly two centuries. This is because it's anchored MAINLY on one issue---USE OF THE FACE MASK.  This is not to say that this issue is trivial---absolutely not!---because on this issue has now depended the fate of tens of thousands of American lives. The death toll in the US due to the virus has impacted on the US economy like no other issue in recent times---not even during the various wars that had involved America in the last century.  


President Donald Trump is running for reelection under the Republican Party, together with Vice President Mike Pence. Interestingly, Trump has consistently refused---from the beginning---to wear a mask as the coronavirus swung into full fury, and its end far from sight. 

In the US, Covid infections have just surpassed the 2.5 million mark in some 37 states across America---with about 400 deaths every day. Among them were more than 400 doctors and nurses. By July this figure is expected to double, with California,Texas and Georgia as the epicenters, with about 100,000 infections a day expected.


The US has the largest number of infected people in the world as a country. But this reality is NOT the only issue. The core issue here is that the President of the United States simply refuses to wear a face mask at all and this has proven so disastrous in recent weeks---as the presidential campaign swung to full throttle with the approaching elections. 

Trump's refusal to don the mask in campaign rallies where he is the star speaker has become a HUGE POLITICAL ISSUE:   some wear masks, but the great majority of the Republican crowds all around the country have ignored it---following their MASKLESS leader. 


Interestingly, his running-mate, re-electionist Vice President Mike Pence, after resisting the continuous nagging of media and medical experts to don the mask, finally succumbed to popular pressure---even as his presidential candidate remains in a state of denial on this issue. The other day VP Pence was seen descending from Air Force 2 in a state, wearing a face mask publicly FOR THE FIRST TIME. Commentators went to town on that one.

In contrast, the Democratic candidate for President, former Vice-President Joe Biden (who ran with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016), has always donned a mask in public---as a perfect foil for his adversary, Donald Trump. THUS, IT COMES AS NO SURPRISE THAT JOE BIDEN HAS BEEN LEADING COMFORTABLY IN THE POLLS.  What's interesting is that Joe Biden is being supported by former officials of the two Bush administrations, which were Republican. 


President Trump most probably will carry on with this stubbornly endangering decision to be mask-less all through the campaign weeks leading up to Election Day. This issue has now taken center stage in the ongoing election campaigns.  It has become a matter not just of common sense, but of PATRIOTISM. 

Donald Trump's mask-less face has become so noticeable during the morning press briefings at the White House, where, ironically, the increasing Covid infections and actual deaths continue to be a super-major concern. In fact over the latter weeks nothing seems to be more talked about at the White House and in US media than the continuing spike of Covid 19 infections by the thousands each week. 

Interestingly, the US President is surrounded during those briefings by two acknowledged authorities on infectious diseases--- Dr. Anthony Stephen Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx and both experts HAVE NEVER BEEN COY AND EVASIVE ABOUT THIS VIRUS. A mask is imperative: these medical experts always chorus, throwing in added advice about social distancing. Dr. Fauci, with his rasping voice, could not be more emphatic about these matters.   


What makes the stubborn refusal of President Trump to don a mask a major issue is that huge political rallies have begun in various parts of the US, and will continue up to the eve of Election Day on Nov. 2, 2020.  This fact is certain to afflict so many Americans,  especially since social distancing would be virtually impossible to enforce in those political rallies. 

To be sure, there are other issues involved in these presidential elections in the US, such as police brutality with the recent death of black American George Floyd from choking, the falling economy, etc.. Nothing, however, surpasses the issue of the MASK and its relation to sharp spikes in death statistics. The issue is that Trump, ---by stubbornly refusing to wear a mask despite the increasing contamination of his followers (the latest to get Covid is Trump's 74-year old top surrogate Herman Cain)---is showing VERY POOR JUDGMENT. 

There is enormous dread about the July 4th holiday. As precaution, some states have ordered closure of bars, restaurants, hair salons, etc. and barred beach outings. 


Trump's stubborn refusal to wear a mask in public has to be a favorite subject of analysis by psychologists and political pundits. In my opinion, it certainly stems from the candidate's great success as a business magnate who made his billions from real estate and construction---not to mention his success as a one-time reality TV star. Trump may be deluded into thinking he is invincible. Sadly, however, the US electorate following him in political rallies across the country are most susceptible to the virus.  

Trump, whose prime properties are the Trump Tower in New York City and casinos in Atlantic City, was assessed in 1990 of a net worth of $1.5B. That could have doubled in the next three years since then. But his refusal to don a mask, thereby contributing to the huge dangers already bedeviling the US electorate, could be his undoing. Predictions of even more massive numbers of Americans dying or falling sick have surfaced as elections near, and the President is already having his share of the blame.  

It's plain hubris on Trump's part, and the Mask issue will be a major factor if he is defeated on election day. Thus, it can perhaps be truly said that for want of a mask, an election was lost.