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.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Duterte should have left the sacking of Rappler entirely to SEC, and stayed away from making the bruising fight his own. Foreign reactions mount in protest of the SEC move, but it still has failed to dent Duterte's popularity here at home. What gives?


There's tremendous uproar over the recent closure by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of the nearly six-year old Rappler, Inc. on the charge that it has violated the Constitution’s restriction on foreign ownership of local media, continues. The SEC, headed by P-Noy appointee Teresita Herbosa, has also accused Rappler of violating the anti-dummy law, the Corporation Code and the Securities Regulation Code.

SEC has revoked the news outlet’s certificate of registration, alleging that Rappler, Inc. ”sold control to foreigners”---even as its closure extended to the stockholder which owns 98.77% of the company, Rappler Holdings Corporation, headed by Benjamin Bitanga, who is  Filipino. SEC accused Rappler Holdings of “existing for no other purpose than to effect deceptive scheme to circumvent the Constitution.” 


The closure of Rappler comes in the heels of a number of administration moves that bring into serious question---especially abroad, judging from various foreign reactions---what appears to be its ineluctable drift toward authoritarianism and strong-man rule. The overtures in Congress about the possibility of a "No-El" scenario only succeed in reinforcing this unhealthy perception abroad about the administration's drift. 

Very recently a prominent senator from President Trump's Republican Party, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, in a privilege speech delivered IN THE US SENATE NO LESS, lumped President Duterte with other leaders, including his party-mate Donald Trump who had been attacking news media and accusing them of propagating "fake news." 

Citing how Mr. Duterte had complained of being "demonized" by "fake news," Sen. Flake recalled the recent ASEAN Summit in Manila where the Philippine President, with President Trump "laughing by his side," called reporters "spies." Flake said that though that statement appeared to be a joke, still, "nothing was funny about the emergence of dictatorial leaders who attacked news media when the truth started to hurt them."  

Flake likened Mr. Duterte to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.


The shut-down of Rappler would not have hurt Mr. Duterte's image as much had he just let the SEC do the dirty job vs. the news site.  That move could have been argued by SEC, as  Sec. 11 (1)  of Article XVI, “General Provisions,”  of the 1987 Constitution specifies that “The ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations, cooperatives or associations, wholly owned and managed by such citizens.”  

SEC fell on the provision that Congress “shall regulate or prohibit monopolies in commercial mass media when the public interest so requires. No combinations in restraint of trade or unfair competition therein shall be allowed.” SEC then zeroed in on the issuance by Rappler Holdings to “Omidyar Network Fund LLC---a fund created by ebay founder Pierre Omidyar and wife---of what are called “Philippine depositary receipts” (PDRs). To SEC those PDRs represent tools of ownership.

SEC’s action may be appealed within 15 days, but it has already created history in that, as noted in media, revocation of Rappler's license “was the first for both the commission and the Philippine media.” 


If Mr. Duterte was smart, what his administration should have done was to studiously keep out of the SEC-Rappler dispute and just let them fight it out. Unfortunately, he came out in an interview showing articles from Rappler that were outright against his administration. His communications people jumped in too, and the issue of violation of the Constitution---which can be argued by smart lawyers---morphed into a campaign instigated by the President to get Rappler for its attacks against him. 

Recall that in his 2017 State of the Nation Address, he already attacked Rappler as foreign-owned, thus violating the Constitution; he later followed this with the accusation that the CIA was funding the online website. Palace communications officials began making life difficult for Rappler---e.g., Mocha removed it from the Palace website.

The SEC had admitted in one instance that it had been deliberating on the Rappler case since December 2016---only six months into the current administration---when it received a request from the Office of the Solicitor General for an investigation of the news website and Rappler Holdings Corporation.


The battle has become personal between the President and his men, and the news website. Feisty broadcast journalist Maria Ressa---who heads the Rappler media group composed mainly of daunting women scarred in journalistic battles over the years---has vowed to fight for her organization’s right to exist and operate. The SEC case  has aroused fears in local circles of  increasing media censorship by the administration.  Observers, recalling what happened to the Inquirer, are now watching what could become of ABS-CBN. 

Tie that to talk in the House of Representatives about a No-el scenario and one can imagine the reactions from abroad as well.  

Interestingly, however, despite fierce criticisms, Rodrigo Duterte's popularity remains at an all-time high here at home---the highest for any Philippine President at this comparative stage in his administration.  This is the paradox of his zig-zagging leadership. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Likelihood of federalism shift puts PH at critical crossroads, as dynasties infused with more "local" funds would predictably refuse to fade away. Current dynasties would prefer cha-cha via a constituent assembly, as they themselves would vote the new system in. But for such a historic undertaking, the best is to elect delegates across the country in a con-con.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte
Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III
House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez

Having been away for over two weeks, I find myself plunging right into the issue of the planned constitutional shift to federalism.  This is not new---we have been talking about it for years, but the fact that the party pushing it---the PDP Laban---is in power makes a lot of difference. 

With President Duterte having campaigned for federalism since he was mayor of Davao and making it the core issue of his presidential campaign, plus the fact that he enjoys a popularity rating not seen in recent administrations, MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE. 

That Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III is vigorously campaigning for federalism in continuance of the family legacy begun by his father, former Senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, Jr. adds tremendous impetus to the current campaign.  


Despite the above factors, however, a shift to federalism will not be a walk in the park. In fact, because of this planned push by the administration to federalism, the country is in a crossroads, with considerable implications on our political and economic life.

Further complicating an already complicated topic---the shift from a unitary to a federal system---is the naked plan of the party in power to do away with the mid-term elections of 2019 and simply extend the term of all current members of  Congress---as well as that of Mr. Duterte--- beyond 2022, by a vote of Congress convened as a constitutional assembly.   


The parliamentary system has many adherents around the world---the US and  Germany are among the biggest federated examples, as are Canada and  Australia. In our Asian region Malaysia and India are successful examples of federations.

A shift to federalism from our current unitary form of government centralized in Manila would make an interesting---and imperative---case study, for there are factors present in our current set-up not found abroad in other cases of shifts in form of government.  Academics point to the fact that the Philippines has 7,000 islands,  28 dominant ethnic groups and 81 provinces---the fact is that in this diversity lies both the richness of our culture as well as the inherent difficulties in governance.


For federalism to succeed here, however, we need, in addition to the intrinsic factors two key factors: A BETTER-EDUCATED PEOPLE WHO ARE BY AND LARGE ECONOMICALLY WELL-SITUATED. These are the reasons why federalism has succeeded in the countries cited above:  their citizens are  better-educated and enjoy improved economic status.

The poverty in our country would make our people quite susceptible to further machinations of the political lords in each province---entrenching the latter further and the derided dynasties just dance the rigodon among themselves. .


Moreover, our being a country of many islands has helped Manila control power and wealth, earning the monicker of “Imperial Manila” (if I am not mistaken, that term was coined years back by former Senator John Henry OsmeƱa and it stuck).  As the imperial majesty, Manila has held the purse-strings and funds have merely TRICKLED DOWN to the LGUs, at their pleasure and discretion. 

The local entities are in a tight bind, inasmuch as they can only collect real estate taxes and business permit fees, not much else. 

Whereas, in a federal set-up the LGUs ideally could generate more income and retain them---to fund programs they need and determine by themselves. Note, for instance, that in 2015, 35% of the national budget went to Metro Manila, even if it represented ONLY 14% OF THE COUNTRY'S POPULATION. 

With the planned devolution of more power and autonomy to the LGUs in a shift to the federal system. it is argued that the central government could now focus on the big-ticket items---such as foreign policy, defense, health care and taxation. That’s one positive aspect of federalism. 

But just as important, “Imperial Manila” could perhaps now look forward to badly-needed decongestion as the LGUs would be given more impetus and challenge to develop as population centers outside Manila. Hopefully it could be a race for meaningful and substantial development such as job generation, and not just the superficial, e.g., park beautification.  


Right now, Metro Manila is bursting at the seams and rural folk continue to stream into it---as there's not enough movement in the provinces and rural salaries are abysmally low. To be sure, there are factors that have spurred some growth outside Metro Manila over time, such as the arrival of call centers and related industries. These industries, however, have yet  to produce ENOUGH MIRACLE EFFECT TO STEM MIGRATION TO METRO MANILA, especially of the untrained. 

Among the nuclei of growth---owing principally to the development of the internet-triggered industries there---are Cagayan de Oro, Davao City, Naga City, Baguio City, Iloilo City and Tacloban City. Academic nerve centers there have sustained businesses feeding on the internet. 

But the fact remains that there is still a heavy inflow into Metro Manila than outward migration. If you don't believe me, ask your housemaids whose clans are virtually in the cities already.


I have been for federalism for some years now but there are nagging concerns that I’m sure many other Filipinos share. One is the fear that federalism, which will give more access to home-grown funds than ever before, would only  institutionalize political families in each province and city than we have seen so far.

I cannot shake off my mind the Parujinogs, the Espinosas, the Mabilogs and other local warlords who have ruled over their areas---soon to be even more empowered with fresh funds. 

The fly in the "Con-Ass" ointment is that it would likely be Congress---in a 3/4 vote in a constituent assembly---that would be passing all these constitutional amendments. Can we expect the miracle of the dynasties outlawing themselves?


With more funds among the LGUs the petty warlords could just thrive in more hospitable climate----to the detriment of the townspeople who need real emancipation from poverty and lack of opportunities.  Historically, federalism thrives best in an area where the people are better educated and reasonably independent economically from the politicos. These two attributes are mutually dependent. and Switzerland is always cited as the ideal.  
Can the citizens of our LGUs who could be newly emancipated by federalism also derive better education and training,  so as to be independent from the dynasties that will seek to continue to rule over them? Could we truly claim we could say goodbye to warlordism in those "emancipated" areas?

Ultimately it is not more funding that we could fall back on to develop our people into more politically independent citizens---IT IS MORE AND BETTER EDUCATION. I have observed at close range how the American people live their daily workday lives:  at its core is a better-educated and trained, and more politically aware people.  

How soon could we produce such Filipinos in our soon-to-be federated regions?