SPEAKING AT a forum on the press and the media, former University of the Philippines president Jose V. Abueva said there were actually five Estates, or powers, in the Philippines.

If the press is the Fourth Estate, the Catholic Church would be the fifth. Abueva did not mention what the other three Estates in contemporary Philippines are. Neither did he mention the sixth Estate, whose influence on Philippine affairs is mostly exercised through its power not only over Philippine presidents and other officials, but also through its hold on the minds of most Filipinos.

The 19th century British parliamentarian, political philosopher and author Edmund Burke named the press the Fourth Estate. There were three Estates in parliament, said Burke, but “in the Reporters’ Gallery sat a fourth Estate more important than they.”

Some, including journalists, tend to confuse the three Estates with the three branches of government (the presidency, the legislature and the judiciary). Wrong. Burke’s three Estates were all in Parliament.

The three Estates were the Lords Temporal (the aristocracy), the Lords Spiritual (the clergy), and the Commons (ordinary folk), who in Burke’s time were already represented in the British Parliament’s House of Lords and House of Commons.

If we went by their original meaning, the three Estates in the Philippines would solely be in Congress, where, presumably, we could equate the Philippine economic elite with the aristocracy (the Lords Temporal). We could also equate the Catholic Church with the Lords Spiritual (in Burke’s time the Church of England), although, given the separation of Church and State, it officially — but only officially — has no representation in Congress. The third Estate would be ordinary folk, whom, some of the party-list groups could argue, they represent.

In one of his less famous aphorisms, Burke’s contemporary, the playwright and poet Oscar Wilde, described the press as “the only Estate,” because, he said, “the Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say but says it.” As a result, he said, “we are dominated by journalism.”

That hardly applies to contemporary Philippines, the power of the press and media being more myth than reality. Not without justification are the press and media periodically blamed for bad reporting and worse entertainment. In the aftermath of the August 23 hostage taking incident, Mr. Aquino III described media behavior as “bordering on the criminal.” He also takes potshots at the media when the mood strikes him.

The news media were regularly harassed by the state during the Arroyo regime with such threats as the withdrawal of franchises and sedition suits, the arrest and detention of reporters, and, during the State of Emergency in 2006, raids on newspaper offices. Libel being a criminal offense in the Philippines, journalists also risked arrest and nights in jail when sued for libel. With this calculation in mind and to silence criticism of his dear wife did Mrs. Arroyo’s husband begin filing libel suits against reporters, columnists, editors and publishers in 2005.

But what was worse was that the assassination of mostly community practitioners peaked at 79 incidents, or an average of nine killings per year, during the nine-year watch of Mrs. Arroyo. The worst incident of its kind in Philippine and possibly world history, the Ampatuan Massacre of November 23, 2009, which claimed the lives of 32 journalists and media workers, occurred in her last months in power.

Is this the lot of the powerful? Not during the Arroyo regime, it wasn’t. From all appearances, neither is it in the Aquino III government.

If about the power of the press there’s more than room for debate, about the power of the Catholic Church there can be no arguing. Look at, and listen to, the usually arrogant senators and congressmen of the Republic groveling before, and apologizing to, the bishops who solicited gifts of SUVs and other motor vehicles from Mrs. Arroyo.

Listen to the same worthies bristling over suggestions for the most minor reforms through bills such as the reproductive health and divorce bills as if the world were about to end because the Church is opposed to them. Listen to them as, transformed into sudden art experts, they threaten to cut the budget of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and echo the hypocrisies of child-molesters and mistress- keepers.

The Church officially has no representation in Congress. It doesn’t need it, there being enough so-called legislators in that body to speak for it, and to be more Churchish (and churlish) than the Church. A fifth Estate indeed is our Lords Spiritual.

But there’s a sixth Estate whose power has been as firmly entrenched not only in the very souls of the multitude, but even more crucially in every government in this country since the early 20th century.

The secret cables from the US Embassy in Manila to the US State Department in Washington released by Wikileaks more than illustrate who this power is and how crucial is its role in the lives of the citizens of this so-called Republic. The United States frowned on Mrs. Arroyo and company’s plans to declare martial law in 2005, say the cables. Wikileaks has also made public other US Embassy cables that, among others, said Corazon Aquino was a “weak leader,” and that Mrs. Arroyo didn’t care to stop her husband’s allegedly nefarious activities although she knew about them (which assumes she wasn’t part of them).

But what’s really no surprise is that Mrs. Arroyo and then House Speaker Jose Venecia found it necessary to consult the US and solicit its support for a declaration of martial law. Philippine dependency on the US is deeply rooted in the corrupt and feckless political class, which has kept the Philippines a vassal state because its interests are closely tied to those of its patron.

Ferdinand Marcos also consulted the US before he declared martial law in 1972. But in his case the US gave its enthusiastic approval and support because it suited US interests and policy at the time. From the 1960s to the 1980s the US supported and encouraged dictatorships to prevent development and democracy in scores of countries, from the Congo and Chile to Indonesia and the Philippines.

It has since learned that tyranny provokes resistance and fuels rebellion, and even revolution. And that is why, according to the cables leaked by Wikileaks, it didn’t approve of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s returning the country to authoritarian rule. Isn’t it comforting to know that the country was spared a reprise of martial law in 2005 because it wasn’t in the interest of the sixth Estate?


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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