Friday, November 11, 2005

ABSCBN Empire Strikes Blow for Press Freedom?

Latest Post of Philippine Commentary is here.

aking its word war with the Palace over the Julius Babao Affair a notch higher, ABSCBN Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Eugenio Lopez III told the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) Thursday that Julius Babao, the network and media in general have been "unjustly vilified" by the President. He struck out at "those whose interest lie in the continued suppression of the truth." Lopez spoke at the same venue as the President's "declaration of war" speech. But Lopez also said,
"Well I would be the first to admit, that while we ought to exert more effort toward greater professionalization of our practitioners, it is also not fair to accuse some of our more critical broadcasters of any sinister motives...I’m particularly saddened by the case of Julius Babao. As far as we can determine in our internal investigation, there’s no truth to the accusation that he bailed out a suspected terrorist. There is no truth to the accusation that he guaranteed the bail bond." Lopez said.
Of course Mr. Lopez does not deny that the suspected terrorist, Dawud Santos of the Rajah Solaiman Movement (who steadfastly claims his innocence), did in fact leave with ABSCBN broadcaster Julius Babao in a company van after Dawud Santos had been bailed out by Jonathan Tiongco, the "asset" of Environment Secretary Mike Defensor, whom Babao tagged as the person who actually helped to spring Dawud Santos. Jonathan Tiongco in turn claimed (in an AM radio interview and to other media) that he was only giving "humanitarian assistance" to an innocent man but refused to confirm that the money came from him. The Palace has stood pat on its claim that the ABSCBN broadcaster did it to get a story, based on a raw intelligence report from the Intelligence Services of the AFP.

So who's telling the truth and who's telling a lie? Probably both!

The truth is that the main stream Media can hardly claim to be completely, or even substantially professional and corruption-free. It's a very uneven record. Moreover, Media and Government coexist in a kind of symbiotic relationship, much like Pravda and Izvestia did with the Comnmunist Party in the old Soviet Union, but with a "free enterprise system" in place of state subsidies. Professionalism in media is a rare commodity in the Philippines, with too many working journalists, beat reporters, columnists, deskmen and especially TV and Radio broadcasters, on the teat, somewhere, somehow.

Thus, given the cynical times and the reality on the ground, it would not surprise anyone if Julius Babao and Jonathan Tiongco together bailed out the terror suspect Dawud Santos, each for his own reasons. It is important to be vigilant, I suppose, in this era when anti-terrorism bills are being proposed that are badly needed to fight terror, but may be used to illegitimately harass the opposition or even to clobber the bloggers, journalists, or peaceful demonstrators.

ABSCBN is a key part of the Media infrastructure To my mind, that infrastructure is under attack by the Palace for its own sinister motives, probably to put the fear of an iron fist in everyone. For if the Palace can afford to push an ABSCBN around, I am sure the yokels out in the sticks get the message and are all lining up for the Palace scripts.

So far the ABSCBN has stuck to its guns. It can afford to, because of its wealth and size. But the Lopez clan interests extend far beyond the lucrative TV/radio entertainment giant ABSCBN, which is its crown jewel. Major holdings are in electricity (Meralco, Manila's main power distributor); water, telecommunications as well as real estate and infrastructure development. Some say the clan overextended itself after more than recovering what Marcos had taken from it in a previous dictatorship. I think they may be vulnerable in a number of areas, and therefore susceptible to the tender persuasions of certain lawsuits getting hung up or decided unfavorably, certain deals going sour, etc., if they decide to take this any further.

ABSCBN was a good choice for the Palace to make an example of and fire a shot across the bow of the typically rambunctions Philippine Media. The Lopez clan is not exactly beloved of the masses, because of its huge economic holdings. The matter of runaway electricity rates has also not endeared it to the public, with the giant electric utility's unpopularity next only to that of the oil companies.

It was a risky move for the Palace, as the issue is also being seen as a threat by other media biggies who do not toe the Palace line, in particular the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a newspaper with much experience and expertise at destabilizing and terminating presidencies.

I think that the Palace's real game isn't even with these two media giants, ABSCBN and PDI. I think the Palace is really just making sure the much larger number of AM and FM radio stations in the cities and provinces, the tabloids, magazines, UHF and VHF and cable stations, which make up the direct connection to the masses, that these stay nervously compliant and cooperative in the "symbiotic relationship." The fear has been put into them by the public vilification of Julius Babao undertaken by the President herself, sweetened by the usual largesse.


The Julius Babao Affair and the Missing Terrorist

Philippine Government Captured the Wrong One-Armed Bandit Terrorist?

Will Bloggers Get Clobbered in the Philippines?

Or go to the latest Philippine Commentary


Edwin Lacierda said...


An apropos title would have been: "The Empire Strikes Back"

Rizalist said...

That was actually the title originally but it soooo hackneyed and overused na. besides it would only attract the wrong sorts of people coming in via google...