Winners and losers

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Benigno Aquino III has been in triumphalist mode since 2010 when he handily won the Presidential elections. Succeeding events since have not moved him from that state.

The results of the 2013 mid-term elections have given him something more to crow about, and even more so the 7.8% growth of the economy for the first quarter of 2013 which surpassed the International Monetary Fund prediction of 6%.

Forget about the power problems in Mindanao, and the increase in the incidence of hunger among the poor, whose legions have not changed for decades. Forget about the high levels of unemployment.

Forget about such crisis management disasters as the government’s mishandling of the hostage-taking incident of 2010 which till today continues to hound Filipinos in Hong Kong.

Forget the amateurish attempt to involve the United States in a military confrontation with its economic partner and moneylender, capitalist China. Forget the government response to the Sabah incident that cost the lives of dozens of Filipinos and forced hundreds of others to abandon a place they had called home for decades.

Forget the shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine Coast Guard and the country’s abject apology to that Chinese province.

Forget about the discrepancies between the election results reported by the Comelec’s problematic PCOS machines and the random manual counts.

The fact remains that Mr. Aquino has virtually unprecedented public approval in his pocket, and that his coalition has comfortable majorities in both Houses of Congress. Like the late Ronald Reagan, who might have been as clueless about governance as an inanimate object, but who nevertheless enjoyed some of the highest approval ratings of any US president during his watch, Mr. Aquino can do no wrong in the eyes of his constituents. Like Reagan, whom some commentators nicknamed The Teflon President, no blunder or scandal, not even his roving eye for the ladies, is gooey enough to stick to Mr. Aquino.

Juan Ponce Enrile’s resignation as Senate President was only the first indication of the consequences to the legislative process of Mr. Aquino and company’s congressional dominance. Enrile may just be another run-of-the-mill politician, albeit a geriatric one from whom one can expect little by way of legislative panache, but the Senate during his watch did do one good thing during the 15th Congress other than to impeach former Chief Justice Renato Corona — and that was to pass a freedom of information (FOI) bill, whatever anyone’s reservations may be about its being renamed the POGI (People’s Ownership of Government-held Information) bill courtesy of Gregorio Honasan.

As in the 14th Congress, it was in the House where the FOI bill sputtered and died, thanks to Mr. Aquino’s coalition of dynasts who feared exposure via the media but who, during an election year, didn’t want to look like the foes of free expression and the people’s right to know that they really were, leading them to pretend that they were supporting it while actually undermining every attempt to get it past the committee level and into the plenary.

Both the Senate and the House, however, passed the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (RA 10175) in record time, and Mr. Aquino signed it almost as soon as it reached his desk. The implementation of RA 10175 has been held in abeyance by the Supreme Court, which could declare parts or even the whole of it unconstitutional, thus requiring either Congressional amendments, or the crafting of another version altogether.

Neither will it necessarily result in a law that will protect the right to free expression of Netizens, media practitioners and ordinary citizens who access the Internet, hold social media accounts, who e-mail, or who, in general, communicate via computer. The Aquino administration has an even bigger majority in Congress, and the odds are that no Saul-to-Paul transformation will have occurred among its returning members between the end of the 15th Congress and the convening of the 16th for them to have become free expression advocates.

Meanwhile, Right to know. Right Now!, the coalition that’s been campaigning for the passage of an FOI act that will actually enhance access to information rather than restrict it, has lost Erin Tañada, its foremost champion in the House of Representatives, who, very likely because of his advocacy of FOI, was excluded from the list of Liberal Party candidates for the Senate.

Mr. Aquino mistakenly thinks an FOI Act will only further strengthen the already powerful media, and ignores the role an FOI law can play in enhancing public access to information about governance. Even less plausibly does he believe that it will create public panic through a glut of unverified, even false information.

His is a view he seems to passionately believe in, as was evident in 2012, when, on at least five occasions in which the representatives of media and press organizations were present, he excoriated the press for its habits of inaccuracy, making opinion seem like fact, accentuating the negative, and focusing on such trivia as his love life.

In awareness of Mr. Aquino’s views, which for some reason became evident only after his election in 2010 (he was all for an FOI during the campaign), for the coming campaign for an FOI act, the Right to know. Right Now! coalition will be approaching individual members of both Houses in the hope of generating enough support to get an FOI bill passed.

It is of course possible for even the most die-hard member of the Liberal Party and its allied groups to take positions independent of Mr. Aquino’s antipathy for an FOI Act. But the fact is that Mr. Aquino’s views and whatever pressure he will exert — and that can be as minimal as a simple statement once again expressing reservations about the wisdom of passing an FOI bill — will matter to every member of Congress, given the persistence, no matter what he does, of his high approval ratings, and the on-the-ground, in-your-face reality of his coalition’s numerical dominance in both Houses.

So powerful is that reality that even the members of the so-called opposition, during the campaign as well as after, took the greatest pains to tell the electorate that they were not against Mr. Aquino but only against some of the people around him. More rather than fewer members of Congress will tread lightly when it comes to passing legislation Mr. Aquino doesn’t like.

It’s obvious, but needs restating. Mr. Aquino and company were the top winners in the 2013 midterm elections. But among the less evident losers could be free expression and public access to information.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
June 6, 2013

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