As ardently observed as Christmas in these Catholic isles, Lent was all of four months ago, but ABS-CBN broadcaster and former Philippine Vice-President Noli De Castro recently described what his network is currently going through as a “calvary.”
De Castro was responding to the most recent episode in the ABS-CBN Via Dolorosa: a plot being hatched by certain congressmen to seize the land, buildings, and equipment of the network in Quezon City and to crush the Lopezes by compelling them to pay the government nearly P2 trillion for a tax evasion offense the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) itself had declared they were not guilty of.
In plotting the seizure of ABS-CBN assets, these learned gentlemen are sending to the business community the disturbing message that they and their enterprises, like the Lopezes and their businesses, can always be harassed out of existence once they offend the Duterte regime. Expect would-be foreign investors to think twice about doing business in the Philippines — and some who are already here to seriously think about pulling out.
A Zoom meeting posted on Facebook showed three House members discussing that scheme. That virtual meeting apparently took place shortly after this same clique and its fellows, despite overwhelming public support for it (75% according to Social Weather Stations), killed a bill renewing the network’s franchise. They thus consigned its 11,000 employees and their families to the legions of Philippine unemployed and denied millions of Filipinos who don’t have cable a vital source of information on the pandemic and other issues of public relevance via the free TV and radio services of ABS-CBN.
So outrageous is the planned takeover and tax levy that one congressman and a senator said it would be illegal for the House to do either, and that whatever claims against the network owners these worthies still had is best brought to the courts. Another law-maker said doing so would be a form of oppression. And no, it wasn’t a member of the ineffectual so-called opposition in the Senate who said so. It was conservative senator and occasional Duterte ally Richard Gordon who correctly gave that scheme its appropriate name: oppression, which more tellingly translates in Filipino into pang–aapi. Even Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. called what the House trio was planning to do thievery and warned them via Twitter that breaking into the network compound would be trespassing.
If as wealthy as they are, the Lopezes can be bullied and oppressed, so can the less affluent, and especially the poorest Filipinos. Pang-aapi and inaapi (oppression and being oppressed) are in fact the key words to describe what the regime is doing — and what is happening to millions of families in the country of our sorrows. For example, in a heartbreaking instance so symbolic of the inhumanity and cruelty at the core of State policy, a Manila court denied a political prisoner’s plea that she and her newborn be detained in a hospital instead of the Manila City Jail where the both of them would be in danger of contracting COVID-19. Not only was that plea denied; the court even separated mother and child.
Those who would dismiss what happened to them as an isolated case should realize that the shutdown of ABS-CBN has not only added to unemployment. It has also made providing for their children’s food, clothing, shelter, educational, health and other needs even more problematic.
One senator even added insult to injury. He made the less than brilliant suggestion that the 11,000 men and women soon to be former employees of the network “just look for other jobs.” But even in non-pandemic times jobs are so difficult to come by that hundreds of thousands of men and women have been forced to leave the country for employment even in war-torn countries and other places whose names they cannot even pronounce.
Even the overseas employment option has been denied Filipino nannies, nurses, domestics, construction workers, seamen and other workers. Because of the global pandemic, thousands of OFWs have also lost their jobs abroad and are desperately trying to survive where they are or to return home, where their present and future have never been as bleak.
Meanwhile, because of the closure of tens of thousands of business enterprises, millions of workers still in the country have already lost their livelihoods. They and their children are hungry and desperately looking for some means to get by. But to their calvary have been added not only the threat of contracting COVID-19 but also that of being arrested, fined from P1,000 to P5,000, and detained for not wearing the face masks many who literally don’t even know where the next meal is coming from cannot even afford to buy.
Broadcaster De Castro pointed out that it would only be common sense for anyone to realize that arresting people for not wearing face masks and hauling them off to the country’s overcrowded jails defeats the purpose of requiring them to use face masks and observe physical distancing so those already infected would not transmit the disease to others, since they would be more likely to contract the disease in the hell-holes we call Philippine prisons, and even while being transported to them.
But common sense is apparently not all that common in a regime whose response to the pandemic has basically been limited to intimidation and coercion as decreed by a president whose buzz words are “kill, kill, kill,” “shoot them dead,” and “arrest them all.” Not only are the country’s streets teeming with armed-to-the-teeth police and military personnel; even combat military vehicles have been deployed in some of those streets to intimidate the populace.
To escape both hunger and oppression, tens of thousands of Filipinos, with their families in tow, are also trying to flee the National Capital Region for the provinces, but are ending up stranded in such places as the piers and the domestic airport. Several thousands have been moved like cattle to Manila’s Rizal Memorial Stadium, where they’re packed so cheek-by-jowl that they and their children are more than likely to add to the 85,000 (as of July 30) of their countrymen already infected with COVID-19.
The only glimmer of hope in this pit of darkness is that after four harrowing years, what is happening to them and around them is awakening more and more Filipinos to the urgency of defending free expression, press freedom, the right to know, and freedom of assembly, the suppression of which, despite the pandemic, have been and are still the priorities of the current regime. The tipping point in the making of this awareness is what happened, and what is still likely to happen to ABS-CBN; the passage of the brazenly oppressive Anti-Terrorism Act; and the undeniable failure, as a group of University of the Philippines professors noted, of what passes for a policy to contain the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
Thousands of Filipinos have thus made known their sentiments through noise barrages, petitions, statements of support for free expression, press freedom and human rights, and other means, with, in one incident, even some in the military no longer applauding the Commander-in-Chief’s rants and bad jokes, in the process recalling to us all in these times of disorder and sorrow that if Lent (death and suffering) has come, Easter (the resurrection) cannot be far behind.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).