13 May 2020
Over the past week, I have gotten solicitations to sign a petition directed at the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC). Supported by the church, the academic community, business organisations, and various other citizens’ groups, the appeal asks NTC to revoke its order for ABS-CBN Corporation to cease and desist its TV and radio broadcasting operations—an order that has been upheld by the Department of Justice.
Apparently, ABS-CBN’s 25-year franchise expired on 04 May 2020, and despite its application for renewal, and follow-ups since 2014, the case is still pending in Congress. Thus, the station was forced to officially sign off the same day, putting in jeopardy some 11,000 jobs nationwide.
ABS-CBN is a media and entertainment conglomerate with television and radio stations which are the largest in the country, and acknowledged as some of the most influential media networks, with the deepest and widest audience reach. It has been disseminating COVID-related information to the remote areas in the archipelago.
Should I include my name in the petition? I do not know the minutiae of the case, especially the legalese of supposed experts of Philippine law. But I am aware that this country has an over-abundance of lawyers who twist and turn the Philippine legal system in order to further political ends—to “weaponise” the law, so to speak.
Regardless of the facts behind the case, I am against the timing of its closure. Just as President Trump should not have withdrawn American support for the World Health Organisation at a critical time such as this, so President Duterte or the NTC, or the Supreme Court or Philippine Congress—whoever are behind the closure--should postpone their judgments and concentrate on the urgent problem at hand. ABS-CBN has the optimal reach, providing not only entertainment to lockdown residents, but crucial information about what’s happening in the country, their provinces, and their communities.
Instead, the arguments of those opposed to the closure are more elemental. They center on the issues of freedom and democracy: freedom of the press, which is necessary in any democratic country. (Indeed, freedom of expression is a human right). However, I think it best to postpone such basic arguments and look at the pragmatic needs of the moment.
In fact, in discussing the issues of freedom and democracy, I have more questions than answers.
Foremost, “freedom,” e.g., freedom of the press, and “democracy” are not synonymous, although we can probably say that freedom is usually institutionalised through a democratic system of government. But we have to parse these ideas—not so much as an academic exercise, but in order to define what we really want.
Back in the 1980s, I was very active in women’s issues. I headed a small organisation operating in the then five southeast Asian countries of ASEAN. One time, when I was in Singapore for a chapter meeting, I was asked for an interview by a reporter from the Singapore Financial Times, allegedly to promote the objectives of our fledgeling NGO. The resulting article turned out to be a personal attack, which almost cost me my marriage. When I asked for the support of the members of my group so we could lodge a formal complaint about the article, I was advised to quietly accept it as everything that came out of the newspapers had been approved by the government.
Singapore at that time was doing social engineering: from banning men with long hair, to punishing those who didn’t flush the toilet or who spat in public, to organising “love boats” in order to encourage graduate women to marry and have children. Meantime, it poured its resources on educating its people—importing talents and skills whilst its own citizens were being schooled. Now, with a more educated population and maturing institutions in place, it can afford to evolve into a more democratic system of government. The previous generation’s willingness to pay the price of loss-of-freedom is giving their children better opportunities.
Aside from Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew, we all know of similar other “benevolent dictators,” China itself has had "benevolent" policies towards HongKong after its take-over in 1997. Now, as the population become more confident, they demand more democracy.
Conversely, we have seen how American-style democracy often does not work in societies steeped in cultures and traditions different from those in the U.S. and western Europe. America has intervened in the affairs of countries as diverse as Iraq and Vietnam--I have read, as many as 200 countries. For some of them, this was purportedly to bring about regime change, in order to install more “democratic” forms of government. Or simply think of the Philippines and our so-called “democracy.” Inspite of some 50 years of American rule, the World Press Freedom Index nonetheless currently ranks the Philippines 136th out of 180 countries surveyed.
We don’t have a democracy to lose. Even in earlier times when we thought we had more press freedom, we mistook it for licentiousness and didn’t use it responsibly, showing that we didn’t have the necessary maturity. For democracy to prosper, we need functioning institutions. For our institutions to be allowed to function, we need good quality education. These are the foundations from which to build our democracy. Therefore, our most important long-term goal should be to develop a more discerning populace who can be fully informed of the issues at hand.
Meantime, we have to accept that whilst freedom is a human right, it is not the most basic of all rights. The most basic are food, clothing, and shelter. After then, we need to feel safe and secure. Only when these needs are met can we construct our own system of democracy, one that befits our own history and traditions. There is no universal formula for democracy--even Ancient Athens didn’t allow women and slaves to vote. By creating the Electoral College, the Founding Fathers of America likewise only instituted indirect democracy.
It is sad that we still haven’t found our strong but enlightened leaders. Perhaps it is our collectivistic upbringing that prevents us from seeing beyond the needs of our family and tribe. Perhaps it is our inability to think in abstract ways that prevents us from creating impersonal systems and frameworks. Perhaps it is our time orientation and our weakness in planning that make us focus on short-term results. If so, these are weaknesses we can address through better education: that is, if we are determined to install reforms that can benefit the population as a whole, instead of simply our and our supporters’ self-interest.
We have the added disadvantage of being a large and heterogeneous country, instead of a small and homogenous one where reforms are easier to implement. Still, we perhaps cannot use large population as an excuse. In the 1960s, the Philippines had a much more progressive economy than South Korea's. But in less than 50 years, South Korea, with some 50 million people, became 10 times richer than the Philippines. Some would say this was largely due to the repressive autocracy but modernising policies of Park Chung Hee. He was later assassinated purportedly when he had outlived his usefulness, and South Korea became more democratic.
All-in-all, we should keep in mind that the West has had centuries of practice through trial and error in order to arrive at their present systems: a rule of law, impartial judicial institutions, individual rights to private property, freedom of worship, freedom to vote, and various other freedoms we already currently enjoy.
We now try to stand on their shoulders, but it is still incumbent on us to search for and develop a leader who is of our tribe, yet out of it, so that they can start from where we are, then proceed to take us elsewhere, and usher us to a period of transition to genuine democracy.