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On May 5, 2020, the country’s largest TV network went off the air; the following July 10, the House of Representatives voted 70-11, at the committee level, to reject a new legislative franchise for ABS-CBN. President Rodrigo Duterte had imposed a death sentence on the network, and the 70 congressmen served as his willing executioners.
The shutdown and the franchise rejection were the worst attacks on press freedom since Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial rule in 1972, and it registered on the public. A Social Weather Stations survey taken in November 2020 found that 65% of voting-age Filipinos thought it was dangerous to write or publish anything critical of the Duterte administration, up sharply from 51% in July.
But the issue cannot be reduced to press freedom, as important as that is. In the election program I host, On the Campaign Trail, editor Jonathan de Santos, the chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, emphasized that more than 4,000 workers were laid off as a result of the shutdown and congressional vote. UP professor Jean Encinas Franco also noted the collateral damage in the area where the network is headquartered, in terms of business losses for restaurants and other establishments. Any campaign to hold the 70 congressmen to account, Franco said, should highlight those who lost their jobs.
But how, exactly, can the public exact accountability from the 70 congressmen? The answer must be: carefully, deliberately, strategically.
Many of the names on the list represent entrenched political dynasties or operate formidable political machines; while it is possible to defeat dynasties or machines, doing so requires exceptional conditions: a popular and viable candidate (e.g., Vico Sotto in Pasig in 2019), a close, multi-candidate race (e.g., Among Ed Panlilio in Pampanga in 2007), or an unusual level of infighting in a party or a political family (e.g., JV Ejercito and Jinggoy Estrada failing in 2019).
Many of the 70 do not face these conditions. With only six weeks left before the start of the official campaign period for local elective offices, it is unlikely that a viable campaign can be mounted against the reelection of (to cite just five) Boying Remulla in the 7th district of Cavite, Martin Romualdez in the 1st district of Leyte, Tonypet Albano in the 1st district of Isabela, PJ Garcia in the 3rd district of Cebu, or Camille Villar in the lone district of Las Piñas City.
Waging a campaign against the only one of the 70 who is running for the Senate, SAGIP party-list Representative Rodante Marcoleta, may be a possibility; it may even be deeply satisfying on a personal level for political activists and press freedom advocates, since Marcoleta was one of the three masterminds (together with Remulla and Representative Mike Defensor) who led the coordinated attack on ABS-CBN in Congress, but defeating him may not serve the purpose of accountability.
Franco questioned the significance of mounting a campaign against him. “Does he even have a chance?” she asked. The December 2021 Pulse Asia survey shows that Marcoleta has an awareness level of only 39% and is ranked 24-29. With three months of campaigning and a prominent position in the Marcos-Duterte bandwagon, Marcoleta may yet break into the winners’ circle, but he will have to get past a crowd of familiar names all trying to get in (including JV Ejercito and Jinggoy Estrada, the half-brothers who are again running for the Senate at the same time).
The contest for Caloocan City mayor may be another possibility. Representative Egay Erice of the 2nd District, though he did not take part in the committee vote, was highly vocal in favor of ABS-CBN; Representative Along Malapitan of the 1st District voted against a new franchise. This year, they are both running for mayor.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the ABS-CBN shutdown and franchise can be an effective campaign issue in Caloocan. “If someone who lost his job speaks in sorties, that would be effective,” Franco said. But she also cautioned against a one-dimensional or single-issue view of election politics. People do not look at politicians as just legislators who legislate or executives who execute plans. “There is a side they expect, their role as patrons.”
ABS-CBN is based in Quezon City, and has been among the city’s largest taxpayers. As it happens, two of the 70 congressmen are from the city, and they are running for reelection. And the third mastermind of the congressional campaign against the network, Anakalusugan party list’s Defensor, is running for mayor. And all three – Defensor, 1st District Representative Onyx Crisologo, 2nd District Representative Precious Hipolito Castelo – all belong to the same coalition, Malayang Quezon City.
Defensor is up against reelectionist Mayor Joy Belmonte, a popular local politician with an entrenched political base. Castelo, whose councilor-husband is running for vice mayor in the same coalition, is facing Ralph Tulfo, an untested political novice, but the son of popular host and senatorial candidate Raffy Tulfo. And Crisologo is entering a three-way race, against actor Arjo Atayde and entrepreneur Marcus Dee.
Could Quezon City prove to be the “hot spot” for a campaign to hold what can be called a symbolic subset of the 70 congressmen to account?
It could be, Franco said. “This can be a good social experiment,” she said, and identified several factors why: the network’s “home” rallies in support of ABS-CBN were mostly held in the city, the population may retain a “collective memory” of those rallies and the issue itself, “some of the workers who lost their jobs live in Quezon City,” and many actors and actresses who work in the network live in the city too.
Because of his work (as news editor at philstarnews, where the Belmontes retain some equity), De Santos could not go into the specifics of a Quezon City-based campaign, except to say that it is “the logical place to raise this issue.” But he did point out two milestones on the calendar: World Press Freedom Day on May 3, and the second anniversary of the ABS-CBN shutdown on May 5 – both mere days ahead of the May 9 vote. It would also only be logical for a campaign against the three Quezon City congressmen who rejected a new franchise for ABS-CBN to factor these dates in.
Any such campaign would face an additional hurdle: The Philippines “does not have a strong track record,” Franco said, in punishing wayward politicians in the voting booth. But a careful, deliberate, strategic campaign, focused on the gut issues and aimed only at three candidates, might yet overcome political inertia. – Rappler.com
Veteran journalist John Nery is a columnist and editorial consultant of Rappler.