January 26, 2018

Connecting the dots

The revocation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) registration of online news site Rappler is being passed off as a simple case of an independent government agency implementing the Constitutional ban on foreign ownership of a media organization.  It has nothing to do with media freedom. It has no implications to other media outfits. And most important of all, the Duterte administration claims it has nothing to do with it.

The facts and circumstances surrounding the SEC decision, however, are in glaring contravention to such a benign argumentation. Duterte wants to shut down Rappler because he cannot stand its criticism of his regime.

Firstly, President Rodrigo Duterte had repeatedly threatened Rappler, along with ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, for being unfairly critical of his administration, imputing various motives.  In the case of Rappler, that it is “fully owned by Americans” and is part of a CIA plot to bring him down. Duterte has not been able to disguise his utter contempt for these three media organizations and his intention of going after them to stop what he considers scurrilous, slanted if not fabricated, reportage meant to undermine his presidency.

Secondly, it was Duterte-appointed Solicitor General Calida who got the SEC to conduct its investigation against Rappler.  In record time, the SEC handed down its decision cancelling Rappler’s corporate registration on the basis of a legal technicality without giving Rappler the opportunity to correct its ownership structure as it had done for other business entities similarly situated.

Thirdly, it is hypocritical of the Duterte administration to utilize the Constitutional ban on foreign media ownership to silence Rappler while it pushes for Charter Change that will do the exact opposite – allow 100% ownership of public utilities, mass media and educational institutions by removing the remaining protectionist provisions in the 1987 Charter.

As pointed out by many legal experts, the Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR) held by Rappler's foreign investors (Omidyar Network and North Base Media) does not vest them with ownership over Rappler or Rappler Holdings. In fact, PDRs are resorted to by companies seeking substantial foreign investment in order to precisely skirt such strict prohibitions against foreign ownership. 

Duterte poses as the one who is aggrieved in all this.  That his administration is merely defending itself from unfair criticism by an intemperate and elitist media outfit with a hidden agenda, that of toppling him. But in truth the Duterte regime is using the instrumentalities of the state to shut down, one by one, those media outlets it considers to be inherently biased against his regime.

Some say there is nothing wrong with this.  That the state, helmed by Duterte, is justified in defending itself from irresponsible media and other kinds of destabilizers.

Unfortunately for Duterte, the Philippine Constitution states: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for redress of grievances.” Duterte is wrong in saying press freedom is a “privilege”. It is a right on the level of freedom of speech and expression, that the state can only curtail in cases of libel or proven use for seditious purposes.

Therefore, this SEC ruling, no matter how Duterte denies shaping or influencing it, is itself unconstitutional. There can be no justification for government closing down a media outlet, no matter under what alibi, just because the President doesn’t like what it publishes.

In truth, the Duterte regime is not without less obviously tyrannical means to counter Rappler. Duterte and his minions, including his social media horde, have blasted Rappler non-stop for publishing supposed “fake news” (while expertly churning out fabrications packaged as news themselves). He has also use paid hacks masquerading as veteran journalists to mount a more sophisticated smear campaign against Rappler.

If a substantial number of people can be convinced then they will stop reading Rappler, its advertising and other revenue will go down alongside its declining credibility, and Rappler will find itself struggling to survive. Libel cases can always be resorted to and in fact the National Bureau of Investigation is handling a current cyberlibel case against Rappler.

The SEC decision on Rappler steps up the Duterte regime’s attempts to gag mass media. It is intended to have a demonstration effect on the rest of the mass media organizations from owners to editors to reporters. Meanwhile the regime perseveres in going after its staunchest critics through a squeeze on franchises, corporate takeovers by businessmen allied with the President, and always, the resort to harassment suits, while turning a blind eye to the unflagging killings of media practicioners.

Recently, Duterte was positively frothing in the mouth when he was asked by Rappler reporter Pia Ranada regarding his hand in the SEC decision. Apparently whatever satisfaction he derived from it was drowned out by the Rappler expose on his right hand man, Bong Go, “intervening” in a P15.5-B project to acquire the Command Management System (CMS) to be installed in brand new Philippine Navy warships.

It is not as if the story has no basis. A note tacked on to an alleged white paper favoring a certain CMS supplier that was forwarded by Defense Secretary Lorenzana to Navy Chief Vice Admiral Mercado cites Bong Go as the source.  This was denied by Go then also later denied by Lorenzana who said he was mistaken about the paper’s source. But there are plenty of suspicious facts and circumstances, enough to raise serious doubts about Malacañang’s intervention in the project.

This is the proverbial “whiff of corruption” that Duterte promised he would not tolerate. Instead of initiating an investigation, checking the paper trail for this document, finding out who from the Presidential Management Staff met with the Navy official in charge of the project and what was discussed, Duterte mysteriously fired Vice Admiral Mercado for “insubordination”, exonerates Go with a non sequitur comment that Go is already a billionaire (ergo he can’t be corrupt) and then goes ballistic in denouncing Rappler for throwing “shit” at his regime.

Or perhaps Duterte is so incensed he could not control his rant against Rappler and Ranada because this is the sort of “whiff of corruption” that could generate disgruntlement in the military.  Well this time, Duterte can blame no one but himself. #

Published in Business World
23 January 2018

December 29, 2017

Method to the madness

Nowadays President Rodrigo Duterte is wont to take every opportunity to accuse the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) of the vilest atrocities he can think of (or invent) as his regime goes into high gear in its counterinsurgency war, perversely codenamed Oplan Kapayapaan.  The latest is at a speech he gave to the annual gathering of LGBT in Davao City where he accused the NPA of going around “molesting or sexually abusing” women in the countryside and even “stealing” the women from their husbands. 

But how can a home-grown revolutionary movement comprised mainly of peasants, waging guerilla warfare in the rural areas, survive for close to five decades if there is any truth to this outrageous accusation?  One might conclude that Mr. Duterte has lost it.  (Some say too much Fentanyl).  Then again, there seems to be method to the madness: the terror tagging of the CPP-NPA is a glaring example.

Mr. Duterte has flip-flopped more than once but this is major. From an avowed fellow socialist and Leftist who understood the social roots of rebellion; who considered a renowned NPA commander murdered by the military as his close friend; who gave support and succor to beleaguered NPA fighters; and who promised to end the longest running armed conflict in Asia through peace negotiations – Mr. Duterte now has nothing good to say about the CPP-NPA.

It is as if all he has to do is change his mind, or his rhetoric, to change the highly political, in fact revolutionary, character of the CPP-NPA overnight.

Thus upon his declaration that he was scuttling peace talks with the revolutionary umbrella formation, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), Mr. Duterte announced he would deny the CPP-NPA any political legitimacy by following the US lead in labelling the movement as “terrorist”.  He issued Proclamation 374 declaring the CPP-NPA a “designated, identified terrorist organization under Republic Act (RA) No. 10168.”

Since the “terrorist” label has been attached of late to the likes of the dreaded ISIS, successor to the infamous Al Qaeda that presumably had been degraded by the US commando killing of Osama Bin Laden, and with supposed ISIS-inspired counterparts most recently defeated in the Marawi siege, Proclamation 374 effectively demonizes the CPP-NPA to the politically uninitiated and conservative sectors of the public, not least of which are Mr. Duterte’s rabid followers.

It serves to terrify them and bids them follow blindly Mr. Duterte’s admonitions about crushing alleged “terrorists”.  The “terrorist” tag is once more used as a convenient, if worn out, justification for pursuing the failed policy of using armed might exclusively or primarily in dealing with rebellion.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Duterte to issue a shoot-to-kill order to the AFP against suspected NPA “so long as they are armed”.  This is eerily similar to his order to the PNP to kill drug suspects “so long as they fight it out” or “manlaban”.  The order amounts to instructing the military to plant guns and explosives against anyone they kill in the counterinsurgency war to take away accountability for extrajudicial killings carried out in the name of counterterrorism. This Duterte order gives license to inflict mass murder on indigenous people and peasants fighting against land grabbing and other forms of exploitation and oppression rampant in the countryside.

From hereon Duterte is poised to have the CPP-NPA proscribed by a Regional Trial Court as a “terrorist” organization so that he can go about using a dormant ten-year-old anti-terrorism law, the Human Security Act of 2007, as well as the Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act of 2012 (RA 10168) to undertake a massive crackdown on legal progressive organizations specially those who espouse a similar program of socio-economic and political reforms as the CPP-NPA-NDFP. (It would not be a surprise for the regime to also use these draconian laws to terrorize ordinary citizens pining for his promised “pagbabago” and shake down businesses in the guise of going after “terrorism” financiers.)

What this portends is mass arrests and the wholesale filing of trumped-up terrorism and other criminal charges against social activists, critics in the academe, mass media or the arts, human rights advocates, grassroots organizers and any and all who the Duterte regime labels as “enemies of the state” and/or “destabilizers”.

Duterte didn’t skip a beat when he asked Congress for approval of another extension of martial law and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao by a year.  Even as the magnified threat from remnants of the Maute, Dawlah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf Group as well as the BangsaMoro Islamic Freedom Fighters was cited as reason enough to extend martial law, this time it is clear that the target is the CPP-NPA and its mass base of support among the landless peasants and indigenous people of Mindanao called Lumad.

Malacañang and the AFP want the public to believe that martial law under Duterte is benign in so far as non-rebels are concerned.  But numerous incidents involving civilians tagged by the military as NPA have resulted in grave human rights violations among the most vulnerable sectors of society.  Take the case of the massacre of eight Lumad in Barangay Ned, Lake Sebu. Aldina Ambag, sister of slain Lumad leader Datu Victor Dayan, says a sniper killed her brother and that seven other slain men were farmers harvesting and planting corps when soldiers entered the village. They are filing complaints with the Commission of Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, as well as the Joint Monitoring Committee for the implementation of the human rights agreement in the derailed GRP-NDFP peace negotiations.

The AFP knows that the NPA draws support from rural folk thus their solution is to deny the NPA this support by militarizing communities. In the process the thousands of civilians are displaced and rendered victims of grievous human rights violations such as EJks, enforced disappearances, illegal arrests and de
tention and torture. These civilian communities’ legitimate struggles are branded as NPA-instigated and their leaders themselves branded as NPA, ergo “terrorist” and deserving of “neutralization”, military-speak for physical elimination.

Those who come to their rescue – human rights defenders, church workers, land reform advocates, or even plain humanitarian organizations -- are also immediately branded as NPA supporters deserving of the harshest measures available under martial law.  When they invoke their civil and political rights such as the right to due process or their right to avail of the services of legal counsel, the military simply answers, “It is martial law and therefore what we say goes.”

Those who think that curtailing the rights of suspected NPA and their alleged supporters is justified in the fight against rebellion better think again.  Marcos became the number one NPA recruiter when he declared martial law to keep himself and his clique in power indefinitely. The closure of all legal and peaceful avenues for the people to seek redress of grievances from government and to pursue much-needed reforms became the clarion call for the youth of the land to join the NPA or establish it where it did not yet exist. #
Published in Business World
18 December 2017

November 28, 2017

Duterte’s 180-degree turn

In a matter of days, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, has made a 180 degree turn in policy regarding peace negotiations with the revolutionary movement represented by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines or NDFP that probably left even the government negotiating panel dumbstruck.

In a series of statements starting November 18 Duterte declared that he would call off the GRP-NDFP peace talks, tag the CPP/NPA as “terrorists” and order the rearrest of NDFP consultants who had been released from prison to participate in the talks. By November 22, OPAPP Sec Dureza announced that all meetings with the NDFP peace panel were called off.  And by November 23, Duterte issued Proclamation 360 “terminating” the peace negotiations.

Unknown to most, the 5th round of formal talks, aborted last May in the wake of the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, was slated to resume November 25 to 27 in Norway. Before this, the two parties held backchannel meetings in the first week of October on how to restart the formal talks. The only hint that Duterte was entertaining a possible resumption was a casual remark to this effect upon the the release of a police office by the NPA in Mindanao.

In October bilateral teams of the Reciprocal Working Committees (RWCs) worked double-time on the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-economic Reforms (CASER). Had the 5th round pushed through, an unprecedented breakthrough would have taken place: a draft joint agreement initialed by the GRP and NDFP CASER-RWCs covering agrarian reform and rural development (ARRD) as well as national industrialization and economic development (NIED) would have been approved by the two peace panels.  If all went well, the entire CASER would be fast tracked to completion by the first quarter of 2018, to be closely followed by accelerated negotiations on political and constitutional reforms (PCR), and a common draft General Amnesty Proclamation, something already dangled by Duterte to the NDFP even before he was sworn into office and which the NDFP had always made clear was their highest priority.

On top of these, stand down orders of both government and NPA forces would have been enforced, while earnest discussion on coordinated unilateral ceasefires would take place, the parameters of which would be less prone to violations, sabotage or provocations from either side than in the previous 6-month ceasefire.

To protect the delicate status of the negotiations from “peace spoilers”, the two sides agreed not to make any statements to the press until substantial progress had been achieved. In the face of such a looming advance in the peace talks, why did Duterte torpedo all the painstaking efforts of his own peace panel by issuing such seemingly rash and brash statements?

Duterte blamed the CPP/NPA for continuing attacks against the AFP and PNP that victimized civilians caught in the crossfire.  But since there is no existing ceasefire of any kind, such clashes are bound to happen.  Objectively speaking, there are ongoing peace negotiations precisely because there is an ongoing armed conflict.

NDFP pointed out that so many innocent civilians, accused to be NPA or supporting the NPA, had been killed in the course of the GRP’s counterinsurgency campaign but the NDFP had never made this a reason for abandoning the talks.

Subsequently Duterte said that the CPP/NPA/NDFP were making demands that he could not accede to.  He made reference to how his order to release 19 NDFP consultants had been very generous and had been met with stern disapproval by the AFP and DND top officials.  (Duterte had earlier said that he could not release a significant number of political prisoners since he would lose bargaining chips in the peace negotiations.) Duterte’s reneging on his promise to release political prisoners as repeatedly discussed and agreed upon in the first to the fourth round of talks, stands as the major obstacle to the implementation of what had been agreed upon in the most recent backchannel talks.

On November 21, Duterte issued Memorandum No. 16 directing the NEDA to “exert utmost efforts to lift or ease restrictions on certain investment areas … with limited foreign participation”.  This memorandum goes against the CASER provision on national industrialization agreed upon in the bilateral meetings. So it would appear that the GRP’s economic managers, with Duterte’s approval, have never had any intention of being bound by the CASER.

Duterte’s latest explanation is that the NDFP was demanding that the GRP form a “coalition government” with it, something he could not give as this would be tantamount to an infringement on the sovereignty of the GRP.  A quick fact check however shows that it was Duterte who first made mention of his willingness to offer a “coalition government” with the NDFP as an outcome of the peace negotiations.  Moreover, in none of the drafts on PCR that the NDFP has submitted to the GRP does the term “coalition government” ever appear.

In reality, Duterte’s explanations as to why he has cancelled talks with the NDFP just don’t wash. One must look at other developments and context to find the answers.

For one, Duterte has unfolded as completely reactionary despite his posturing as a Leftist and a socialist and lately, his threat to impose a “revolutionary government”.  He has not implemented a single one of the socio-economic reforms he promised. He has upheld the vested interests of the oligarchs and foreign big business. Despite sidling up to China and Russia to ask for economic and military aid, Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” has not changed lopsided economic, political and military relations with the US. And his much vaunted “war on drugs” has only served to satisfy his bloodlust for small time drug users and pushers while suspected drug lords like his son go scot free.

For another, Duterte’s authoritarian bent and militarism has become fully unmasked.  He brooks no criticism. He is vindictive and uses his vast powers as president to go after his perceived enemies. He would use the state’s full coercive powers – the police, the military, the justice system – in a spree of extrajudicial killing, in declaring an unwarranted martial law, in destroying Marawi City purportedly to crush ISIS-inspired terrorists, in ratcheting up counterinsurgency operations against the NPA and in cracking down on activists and all opposition.  His solution to deeply entrenched social problems is a mailed fist.

Duterte is now itching to declare a “revolutionary government” that is nothing but an open fascist dictatorship.  It stands to reason that there is no room for peace negotiations in such a dire scenario.  #

Published in Business World
27 November 2017