THE more things change, the more they stay the same. This epigram from the 19th century French journalist, critic and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr might well be applied today to the Duterte administration, which came to power in 2016 on the promise of change.
For many voters who chose Rodrigo Duterte as President, change meant a departure from the hubris, patronage politics, official incompetence and insensitivity of the Aquino administration.
Therefore, it is disconcerting, to say the least, to see leaders of the incumbent administration begin to exhibit the mannerisms and attitudes of their predecessors.
House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, f
or example, now says that he was only joking when he threatened to cut off funding to provinces that did not support the administration’s push to institute a federal system of government. But he did this after drawing heavy fire—as he well should—for acting as if the National Treasury were his own personal bank account to write checks or withhold them as he pleased.
Now everyone, including the good Speaker, ought to know that nobody can really do that without violating the Constitution so we will give him the benefit of the doubt. But even as a joke, the threat to withhold funding to those who disagreed with the administration was a particularly odious one that reminded us of how previous administrations punished their political opponents by simply delaying the release of funds by the Budget department. The offhand manner in which he made his “joke” also recalls the insensitive and dismissive manner in which the immediate past president told a Tacloban businessman, in the aftermath of Super Typhoon “Yolanda,” not to worry about looting with these reassuring words: “You’re still alive, aren’t you?”
Another odious practice that seems to have survived the change of administrations is the habit of blaming one’s predecessor for all the ills that beset the country. Now, in agencies such as the Land Transportation Office, it is also being used as an excuse for the lack of action.
But even more alarming, perhaps, is the way this administration is “improving” on its predecessor’s expertise in manipulating the news.
All of us recall the shameless trial by publicity engineered by President Benigno Aquino III against the hapless Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was crucified in the press well before he was convicted and ousted by the Senate.
With some sense of irony, this administration is going after the incumbent chief justice in much the same manner—but going one dangerous step further.
Now allies of the administration in the House of Representatives want to rewrite Section 4 of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution that protects free speech and freedom of the press by adding three seemingly innocuous but truly terrible words (in italics): “No law shall be passed abridging the responsible exercise of freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
The addition of these three words open the door to state interpretation on what constitutes responsible and irresponsible journalism and with it, the power to shut down its critics on a whim. This throws out the all-important concept that a free press, as a watchdog of government, has a key role to play in a democracy. This kind of change is not what we signed up for and must vigorously oppose—before the gags are applied and we are all silenced.