It’s hard to imagine that the Villar family and the self-styled evangelist Apollo Quiboloy got their broadcast franchises as anything other than as a favor from President Duterte, given their longstanding and ostentatiously symbiotic relationship with him.
Indeed, it’s akin to a medieval royal grant, and that’s how far backward this nation has been taken in the reign of Rodrigo Duterte.
The Villars, whose patriarch, Manuel, is now the wealthiest Filipino, have been among the closest political allies of Duterte’s. A former speaker of the House and Senate president, Villar came close to becoming President himself – he had been a shoo-in until Benigno Aquino III, son of the martyr Ninoy and President Cory’s, unpredictably joined the presidential contest, blindsiding him and handing him a heartbreaking defeat that made him recede from politics in order to brood privately.
From his defeat, though, rose the matriarch, Cynthia, who promptly pledged her political dynasty to Duterte, himself a vicious Aquino detractor. From the moment he assumed the presidency, she has held a sure vote for him as a member of his majority in the Senate, which has easily overwhelmed the scarce holdovers from the Aquino days. And neither did it hurt the Villars’ profit center – property development – that Manuel and Cynthia’s son Mark had been public works secretary until he resigned, as required by law, when he decided to run for senator in the May elections. His wife has remained an undersecretary of justice in the meantime.
Quiboloy and Duterte go much further back – as far back as Duterte’s days as mayor of Davao City, where Quiboloy’s Kingdom of Jesus Christ church, whose members hail him as the Appointed Son of God, is based. He also has a church in Los Angeles, California, USA, but his proclamations of self-divinity obviously fail to impress the state prosecutors there: they have brought charges of human trafficking and sexual abuse against him. Anyway, he’s not about to extradite himself and commit the sin of pride by flaunting his powers against American law.
Quiboloy has been Duterte’s longtime spiritual adviser, although their closeness might be measured more comprehensibly in material terms. Quiboloy, for instance, had shared his private jet with Duterte, until he got his own – two jets in fact, one for his office as president, the other for the armed forces, of which he is also the Commander in Chief.
If the Villars and Quiboloy had got their franchises as normally as anyone might have, that would still be met with suspicions of impropriety. The circumstances surrounding the grant make it shamelessly scandalous. The franchises were awarded soon enough after ABS-CBN had been denied a renewal of their own franchise, by the Duterte Congress, and its assigned broadcast frequencies subsequently freed up, by Duterte’s National Telecommunications Commission, for the new franchisees to take over. There have been earlier applicants for those franchises, but for a dollar billionaire and for God’s guy on Duterte’s earth, jumping the line entails a simple trick.
It all smacks of a scheme. And, in a democracy and under its earthly rules and traditions of decency, it sticks out as a case worse than conflict of interest, worse even than influence peddling. The greater crime committed here is suppression of press freedom.
Franchise renewal has been intended as a pro forma grant, precisely because it involves a first-ranked, constitutionally guaranteed freedom – press freedom – as such meriting first-rate protection. That’s why, as a matter of course, holders are allowed to keep their broadcast franchises for as long as they don’t overstep certain technical bounds, and such an extreme sanction as franchise cancellation or denial of franchise renewal is never a fair option. In fact, about the only way to lose the franchise is by giving it up.
That was not the case at all with ABS-CBN. Nothing about it was technical, everything was personal. Duterte had simply hated the news network since even before he became president, accusing it of being biased against him and promising to get back at it.
As good as he surely feels having given the Villars and Quiboloy their franchises, just as surely nothing brings him more satisfaction than having assigned to them the frequencies once assigned to ABS-CBN.
Not in Rappler’s case
Doubtless, Duterte has had similar violent feelings toward Rappler. But with no franchise to take away from it – it’s an online news site, thankfully – he could only try to get his vengeance by harassing it with all sorts of suits, for such imagined transgressions as libel, tax avoidance, and violations of the securities law.
But no way, ever, will he be able satisfy his longing for vengeance on Rappler. His personal target, Rappler’s CEO and one of its founders, Maria Ressa, has been vindicated in the worst way he could have imagined: she is now a Nobel laureate, for peace. – Rappler.com