The media in aid of election

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No one from the police or the military is saying exactly what the connection is between the supposedly still brewing attempts to force President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo out of office, and Senator Panfilo Lacson’s claims of corruption and money laundering against Mrs. Arroyo’s husband Jose Miguel. But both Armed Forces and police sources have suggested that there is a connection, and that the people and groups involved include the usual suspects from the opposition.

That Lacson has not proven his case is not in the least important to these groups. What matters is that, at least partly thanks to the media, he seems to have proven something, though no one knows exactly what that is.

There may be a “hodgepodge” of “desperate groups”, as Interior Secretary Jose Lina claims, behind the continuing efforts to oust the Arroyo government. But it is certain that among them are those groups which believe that the 2004 elections will either not take place, or that if they do, by fair means or foul they’re likely to result in six more years of Arroyo.

Urban poor groups identified with former President Joseph Estrada, for example, are supposedly recruiting warm bodies for a series of demonstrations that could culminate in a reprise of EDSA I and II. These efforts would be puzzling, considering that the 2004 elections are only eight months away, if it were not for the fact that there seems to be, in the Estrada camp at least, a sense that the opposition doesn’t stand a chance in 2004.

From that standpoint the only alternative to an Arroyo Administration Part 2 would be to overthrow Arroyo now, and reinstall Estrada into power long enough for his plunder case to be dismissed.

Not that there is any kind of unanimity in that amorphous group we call “the opposition,” however. Opposition fractiousness is evident not only in its inability to decide whom it will field in 2004. From their public statements, some personalities and formations within it think the Arroyo government can be removed through elections, and are reluctant to engage in the kind of adventurism demonstrated by Estrada’s urban poor constituency in May, 2001.

There does seem to be a sizeable group eager to take advantage of any opportunity to seize power by any means. In this group are those personalities that through the exigencies of Philippine politics have become major opposition figures despite their power-grabbing predilections and their poor records as public servants.

But some of the efforts by the street components of this wing of the opposition seem to be succeeding, if one went by the recent proliferation of several groups with strange-sounding names, and their scattered efforts to hold demonstrations against the usual Estrada pet peeves, particularly the Supreme Court.

Jose Miguel Arroyo has become a common feature in these events. Arroyo’s name is either shouted or splashed on placards and streamers as the alleged epitome of corruption in his wife’s administration, with unflattering remarks on his supposed relationship with his secretary thrown in for good measure.

But it’s not just the unwashed who’ve taken the Lacson charges to heart. Even the Council of Philippine Affairs (COPA) and its Gucci’d landlord and businessmen members have taken to the streets together with some of their allies, and marched to the offices of the banks (Metro, BPI and Banco Filipino) that, said Lacson, still have active accounts in the name of “Jose Pidal,” whom he says is Mike Arroyo.

What’s clear from this is that the Lacson “expose”, conveniently for those groups opposed to the Arroyo administration specially the Estrada camp, has become an issue they think big enough to bring mass outrage to critical mass by adding to those others that have been smoldering since 2001.

If EDSA I and 2 are to be any gauge, in the calculation of these groups the Lacson claims could be the straw to break the camel’s back, enough to lead to the overthrow of the Arroyo government—of course with the help of disgruntled elements from the police and the military.

But two weeks into the controversy over the Jose Pidal accounts and the supposed involvement of Mrs. Arroyo herself in corruption, Lacson has yet to prove any of his allegations. His star witness has since recanted, and admitted to the Senate that he had fished around for a patron to expose what he knew about the goings-on in Mike Arroyo’s Makati office because he wanted to get back at him for supposedly besmirching his name and firing him, and that he does not know who Jose Pidal is.

Mike Arroyo’s brother Ignacio has come forward and said he’s Jose Pidal. The banks that Lacson said are still keeping the Jose Pidal accounts have either denied, or refused to either confirm or deny, the existence of those accounts, citing the bank secrecy laws. What’s more, Ignacio Arroyo has issued a Special Power of Attorney which would allow the Senate to look into and garnish the accounts that Lacson says he still maintains in the banks that COPA picketed early this week.

Lacson’s claim that millions went into the same accounts from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office have also foundered on the presentation by the PCSO head of evidence that the checks he mentioned went to legitimate beneficiaries, and what’s more involved tens of thousands and not millions.

What the evidence—or the absence of it—has proven so far is that Lacson’s claims are on sandy ground. But evidence has nothing to do with it, and Lacson seems to have known it from the very beginning, thus his use of the Senate privilege hour for his allegations—which he shrewdly grouped into chapters one and two to prolong their media exposure.

Lacson knew that the media would take the bait, and play up in screaming headlines claims that in the newspapers of other Southeast Asian capitals—say Bangkok—could hardly make the front pages of respectable broadsheets because they’re unproven.

Leave it to the Philippine media to prove Lacson right. He got the headlines he wanted each of the two times he delivered his privilege speeches, and what’s more, was able to ham it up before the TV and still cameras when the Senate began its hearings on his allegations.

In fact the very same newspaper that yesterday was urging the Senate to put a stop to what it called the “reckless charade” the Senate hearings have become was itself right in the thick of hyping up the Lacson charges, in much the same way that it condemned the Oakwood mutiny after publishing a veritable album of photographs of mutiny leaders as well as a front page spread featuring three huge color photographs of Gringo Honasan.

These would not be so terrible if it were not for the fact that the very efforts at destabilization much of the mass media condemn they also feed, by headlining claims that, in their calculation, will sell more newspapers and boost ratings because they’re so sensational.

Expect the self-righteous plea of the quintessence of media hypocrisy to fall on the usual deaf ears. Obviously the Senate is holding the hearings primarily because they’re a chance for Their Honors, specially the re-electionists and aspirants for higher posts among them, to get millions of pesos worth of publicity for free. Asking them to stop is like asking a boy to stop eating candy after feeding him sweets.

And how sweet it indeed is. The hearings are certainly not an opportunity in aid of legislation, to find out what laws or amendments to existing laws are needed to plug loopholes in existing ones. Or even what laws to pass to prevent senators armed with photocopies of bank documents and the shaky testimony of a messenger from wasting everyone’s time—and along the way contributing to the destabilization everyone including the media say they oppose. What they are is in aid of election and reelection.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, September 6, 2003)

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