The August 20 issues

On the anniversary of his assassination, it is well to remember what Ninoy Aquino stood for, but to hold a demonstration against amending the Constitution on this day seems an odd way to mark his political martyrdom.

A constitution belongs to the living.  It is meant to express a generation’s fluid relationship to the world and its perception of its tasks.  That is why Jefferson recommended a constitutional convention every twenty years so that every generation could write its own constitution.

Yet the August 20 pro-democracy rally is an important event that one cannot ignore.  A demonstration remains the closest thing to the exercise of direct democracy.  As an antidote to political apathy and complacency, nothing can quite compare to the power of a rally.  It is a great leveler.  When sharply focused, it melts the differences among its participants even if only for a moment.

A rally however is not a good place for a debate or a reasoned discussion.  And the issues the organizers for the August 20 rally have chosen are complex; they cannot be resolved by a demonstration.

The first of these issues – the coercion of the press – involves two newspapers.  One of them has decided to sell the newspaper; the other continues unfazed and has launched a crusade to protect press freedom.  Most of the other newspapers do not seem to share the view that press freedom is threatened.  If a president calls upon his supporters to stop patronizing a newspaper that in his view has attacked him, it is debatable whether that constitutes an assault on press freedom.  One expects that the first line of defense must be the press community itself.  Is it just opportunism that prevents the other publishers from rallying to the call of the Inquirer?

One wishes, in any case, that presidents and other powerful public figures did not have to sue for libel or to quarrel with newspapers.  The social benefits that a sharp-tongued press brings — like having a transparent and prudent government — far outweigh the personal injury that it may often inflict upon public officials.   But leaders have different thresholds of tolerance for criticism.  Some take it in stride while others like President Estrada take certain types of reports to be an attack on their personal worth.  I think that in general, as their confidence grows, Filipino presidents become less sensitive and more comfortable with the press, while the press itself learns to be more respectful of new presidents.

But to equate Estrada’s handling of the press with that of Marcos is to indulge in exaggeration.  Marcos padlocked all media during Martial Law except the few that he directly controlled.  Chino Roces was right not to publish the Times because to do so then would have been to mock the concept of a newspaper.  But  that is not the situation today. The Gokongweis sold the Times; it was not seized from them.  The Inquirer is losing some money as a result of withdrawn advertisements but, to its credit, it remains an unrepentant hard-hitting newspaper.  To cry press freedom each time a newspaper finds itself at war with a president is to diminish the concept and to render it less useful for those crucial occasions when it is truly needed.

The other issue being raised in the August 20 rally is cronyism.  It is an important issue.  To warn against the return of cronyism, however, is to imply that it ever left.  There have been cronies in all administrations in our country, including those of Aquino and Ramos. The definition of a crony as someone who receives behest loans or whose business is bailed out with public funds is quite narrow.   A crony is anyone who enjoys unfair advantage in business or in any economic transaction by virtue of his closeness to the wielders of political power.  Cronies in our society tend to be those that invest huge sums of money in the election of public officials.  The returns to their investments are made possible by the enormous discretionary control that government wields over business.

The way to fight cronyism is by severing the umbilical cord that binds business to politics.  We can begin by making our elections less expensive and less dependent on big-time political donors.  We have laws requiring all contributions and their sources to be declared, but like our tax laws, these are not enforced.  We have to find the will to do so.

But perhaps more than cronyism, it is the scandal of public officials enriching themselves in office and getting away unpunished that has demoralized our people.  We have laws empowering the state to confiscate illegally-gotten and unexplained wealth.  Yet our inability in the last 13 years, under 3 presidents, to make the Marcoses answerable for the Swiss accounts alone has cast doubt on our resolve to punish dishonesty in government.

I neither share the government’s sense of urgency in wanting to amend the present Charter, nor am I so fearful of any move to amend it as to oppose a debate on the issues.  I feel the same way about the state of press freedom in our country. I cannot appreciate the president’s persistent pique over the Inquirer’s style of reporting, and the advertisers’ boycott that it triggered, but I do not think that this amounts to a threat to press freedom.

What agitates me is our perplexing failure to recover the Marcos hidden wealth. In the face of our people’s dehumanizing poverty, this failure mocks everything we stood for at EDSA.  It is time we retrieved all the wealth the Marcos regime looted, or we confess that February 1986 was a mistake.  It is a matter of national self-esteem.   We can neither hope to write a constitution nor protect our freedoms if we cannot begin to respect ourselves.


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