Saturday, August 02, 2014

Backing down from confrontation

1:28 am | Friday, August 1st, 2014

CANBERRA—President Aquino’s fifth State of the Nation Address last Monday signaled a back-down from the confrontational course on which his administration set out starting in mid-July against the Supreme Court. It embarked on that course after the high court struck down as unconstitutional on July 1 the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program, or the presidential pork barrel.
In his Sona, the President not only did not defend the DAP but also refrained from raising it as an issue worthy of national debate in his annual report to the nation. His speech was notable for its conciliatory tone, in stark contrast to his pugnacious defense of the DAP in two nationally televised speeches two weeks ago, which locked the two constitutionally independent branches of Philippine democracy, the presidency and the judiciary, in conflict. The omission of the DAP issue from the Sona defused the tensions between the two great institutions.

Whatever prompted the President to change his confrontational course, it cannot be said that it was due to his deep-seated devotion to the system of checks and balances. He had, after all, warned in his TV speeches that the Supreme Court’s decision invited intervention from the third branch, Congress, to overrule it. It was not an empty warning because the President’s coalition in the House of Representatives led by his Liberal Party, controls the majority in the chamber.

The presidential tour de force in the Sona appears to have reduced the risk of a constitutional stalemate over the DAP. The President has indicated that he is not taking an activist stance to retaliate against the Supreme Court, to the extent of instigating administration allies in Congress to file bills transferring the administration of the high court’s multimillion-peso Judiciary Development Fund to the Bureau of Treasury. The fund was created 30 years ago under a Marcos-era decree that authorized the judiciary to generate its own funds in order to help augment its budgetary requirements for the benefit of its personnel and to help ensure its independence.

Opposition lawmakers noted the conciliatory tone of the Sona, which made no mention of the plunder and graft cases filed against three of their own—Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla, who are all in detention. The cases had been held out as a trophy of the administration’s “daang matuwid” campaign. The three senators have been charged in connection with the P10-billion scam allegedly masterminded by Janet Lim Napoles, in which their pork barrel allocations were supposedly funneled to a syndicate of fake nongovernment organizations operated by the businesswoman in exchange for hefty kickbacks.

In explaining the President’s change of focus in his Sona from highlighting corruption and emphasizing his administration’s accomplishments in economic growth and poverty reduction—about which the administration has come under growing criticism for giving priority to the criminal prosecution of officials involved in corruption cases—Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras said Mr. Aquino “wanted to show he was a statesman.” Although the President has downgraded his bashing of the Supreme Court and of the previous administration, MalacaƱang admitted that criticisms had taken a toll on the administration’s popularity ratings, which plunged to record low levels in the past few months.

The criticisms have centered on the DAP, which is seen as an abuse in the disbursement of public funds that were claimed to have served as stimulus to economic growth. This argument was earlier shot down by Senator Estrada who, in a privilege speech, charged that millions of pesos in DAP funds intended to ramp up economic growth were used to provide additional allowances to senators who voted to convict Chief Justice Renato Corona during his impeachment trial in the Senate.

In glossing over the mention of the DAP in his Sona, Mr. Aquino removed the fund from public scrutiny, into which Budget Secretary Butch Abad, its ingenious architect, has been drawn as the official accountable for the unconstitutional program. There is public demand for the dismissal of Abad. Mr. Aquino has rejected his resignation and Abad hangs on to his post, saying he still had the confidence of the President.

The removal of the DAP from the hot seat is thus a self-serving act of political survival.

The Sona, through its nonmention of the DAP, has become the crucible on which the administration’s self-righteous declarations of transparent governance are being tested. It was clear that the President is smarting from criticisms, and referring to those who air them as “those who have turned public service into business” and “those who have no other goal but to overthrow government.”

There is very little in the Sona to justify accomplishments in poverty alleviation and job creation beyond the overzealous criminal prosecution of officials accused of corrupt practices. Governance is more about productive activities and creating jobs to bring incomes to the poor. It is less about not being nasty to the critics of government.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Out of context

By Luis V. Teodoro | Posted on 17-03-2014


PROVIDING CONTEXT is not a strong suit of the dominant media,* whether in the form of  a few paragraphs recalling the background of events,  a sidebar,  or an entire article recalling the history of the public issues they report on. Context is often glaringly absent even in reports on the most complex  and  publicly-relevant events and issues.

Providing the context of the news is universally understood as a necessary component of the journalistic responsibility of truth-telling.  The five Ws and the H (Who, What, Where, When, Why and How) can answer only the immediate questions media readers, viewers and listeners ask about an event, but cannot provide the history or background that can make it understandable. Context serves not only the individual need to understand the complex events and issues that at the personal level can make the difference between ignorance and knowledge; it is also crucial to the shaping of the informed public opinion crucial to the decision-making duty of citizens in a democracy.

The lessons every generation learns it also has to pass on to the next if only for the sake of developing the collective awareness a society needs to arrive at a consensus on the issues that concern it, and to move forward.  While the responsibility of making sense of their experience and imparting the lessons they’ve learned from it is primarily that of the antecedents of the men and women upon whom the shaping of the future depends, in societies in crisis that duty is increasingly being neglected, as the stresses of living divide and even break up families, and arriving at any consensus on the meaning of the past becomes more and more difficult.

That burden is increasingly being thrust on the schools and the media, on which now depend the transmission of the knowledge and insights of past generations.  The failure of both institutions—the schools are arguably even more deficient in imparting the lessons of history to the children and youth under their tutelage—has resulted in the making of a population largely ignorant of the lessons the experience of past generations can teach. No issue is ever really settled in the Philippine public sphere: in what is supposed to be a democracy, practically the same arguments raised years earlier are raised for or against public policy.  But what‘s even worse is the lack of debate and discussion on matters of vital public interest.

Illustrative is the absence of public discussion over the Aquino administration policy of “inviting” US troops to use Philippine bases on a “temporary” basis.  The terms in which the policy is being described and framed seek to avoid a clash with the Constitutional prohibition on foreign military bases and the presence of foreign troops in Philippine territory.

The linguistic legerdemain aside—the “invitation” is being issued in the context of the US “pivot” to Asia, while the supposedly temporary presence of US troops has been going on for well over a decade—the policy has vast implications on Philippine sovereignty, politics and society.  Despite its expected and other possible impacts, when it was first proposed the dominant press provided neither the historical nor current context that would have provoked public debate on the basis of the lessons the country learned from the 90 years during which foreign troops were based in several US military installations in the Philippines.

Only in the past few days has some of these implications found space in one broadsheet. In an attempt to put in context the refusal of the Senate to approve a treaty extending the lease on US bases in 1990, and to provide a background on the deployment of US troops in Philippine bases, the Philippine Daily Inquirer looked into the possible resurgence of prostitution in and around the “facilities” where US troops would be based.  The networks have so far not bothered to recall history and the lessons citizens may learn from it.

While some senators are likely to question the constitutionality of the Aquino administration “invitation” to US troops and its coyly deceptive description of their presence in Philippine territory as “temporary,”  most citizens are likely to ask what the fuss is all about. It’s not a Senate debate over the Aquino policy that’s the danger, but the lack of public discussion over an issue that can have far-reaching consequences on Filipino lives.  For that appalling state much of the blame must be laid on the dominant media.###

*Mislabeled the mainstream, corporate media dominate the Philippine press and media landscape in terms of size and reach, but it is the alternative press, with its over a hundred years of history and relevance—from La Solidaridad, Kalayaan and El Renacimiento to We Forum, Veritas and Bulatlat– that constitutes the mainstream tradition in Philippine media.