POSTSCRIPT / July 22, 1999 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Who has the last word -- the owners or the editors?

IT is normal in peace talks for one party to check first the credentials of the other. It is pointless talking to somebody who cannot commit his side in the negotiations.

In the reconciliation meeting being arranged between President Estrada and his favorite newspaper, we wonder if the parties would bother to check each other’s credentials.

We remember an exasperated President Estrada asking if the old fogeys at Utrecht claiming to lead the National Democratic Front actually speak for the rebels in the countryside. Last we heard, the President had decided to talk instead to the regional rebel commanders. We think he did the right thing.

As for his proposed peace talks with the paper, we think the President should lower his expectations. He should just look forward to it as a social affair, a long-postponed public relations gesture, with no guarantee of a more sympathetic coverage of his presidency.

* * *

IF he is dreaming of gaining firm assurance of a better press after that dinner meeting, his media handlers better rouse him from his reverie.

The most that could happen in such attempts at fence-mending is for the President to assure his guests that he is not after them, that he means well, that he has been grossly misunderstood. He then could ask for more understanding, if not sympathetic treatment.

The owners and editors of the paper, on the other hand, could be expected to go through the motions of assuring the President of their good faith, their readiness to support the administration when it has a good thing going, and their hope that the President’s men could be more helpful.

That’s not difficult to do. It’s just laway.

* * *

WHILE such a reconciliation meeting is potentially disastrous for the paper, it is teeming with propaganda and tactical value for the President.

The mere fact that the paper agrees to a meeting is a plus point for the President because it tells the world that the owners of the paper are hurting. After all, that’s the whole point of the ongoing pressure tactics being applied on the press.

For another, such a meeting provides the President the occasion, an excuse, for his reining in the dogs snapping at the heels of their master’s tormentors. The President can’t afford to be pictured forever as a persecutor of the press.

At some point, like now, the President has to pull back in his assault on the press. After all, he has already delivered his message, which is that one can’t fight City Hall.

* * *

IF only out of curiosity, the President may want to find out discreetly who can speak for the paper. Is it the owners or the editors?

This is no idle prior question. In a serious dialogue, one has to know with reasonable certainty if the other party has the capacity to commit his side.

We have been treated to the spectacle of the owners of another daily apologizing on its front page to the President – over the noisy objections of the editors. To dramatize their objections, some of the editors resigned (only to see some of their colleagues breaking ranks and clinging on to their jobs).

The question of who decides what comes out in the paper must be resolved first. Otherwise, we could be treated to a similar spectacle of the harassed newspaper owners expressing readiness to give the President more sympathetic treatment, while the editors persist on doing what they had set out to do to the President.

* * *

AN attempt at a reconciliation between the President and a critical press is an awkward scenario.

The adversarial position of the press in relation to government is nonnegotiable. If the managers of a newspaper agree to sit down with the President to discuss relationships, it is just to reiterate the immutability of this watchdog function of a libertarian press.

But of course in the real world, that is just an ideal. We’ve seen just too many press moguls and even editorial staff entering into a modus vivendi with the powers that be to protect personal and business interests.

The dilemma of a media owner with other businesses to protect is how to mollify an aggrieved president without violating the editorial integrity of his paper and incurring the condemnation of his editorial staff.

Improperly handled, an accommodation with the President disregarding the sensibilities of the staff could wreck the paper, as it did in the case of The Manila Times.

At the very least, the paper whose owners and editors had sat down for a dialogue would be constantly watched thereafter for any sign of having been coopted. Imagine the resulting pressure on the staff!

* * *

THE serious flooding of the metropolis the past several days because of heavy rains could be a problem more serious than the traffic mess that has been inflicting damage estimated at P160 billion annually.

While the traffic standstill merely paralyzes movement, floods could actually take lives and wash away entire communities.

Even now there is fear that the La Mesa dam, the water impoundment off Balara in Quezon City may soon overflow with the record downpour yesterday and the previous days.

What are we doing about this potential killer aside from airing warnings in the media for those in low-lying areas to move to safer ground?

As usual, we’re reacting at the last minute to a danger that should have been seen a long time ago.

* * *

WE always seem to move only at the last minute. Take the case of our perennial classroom shortage. We know in advance how many students will enroll every year and how many teachers, books, classrooms, et cetera, would be needed.

Yet, we see officials wringing their hands and going through the motions of asking for a bigger budget only when the newspapers start to publish pictures of large numbers of students crammed in makeshift classrooms.

We can predict the demand for classrooms, books and teachers for the next five years and set aside the money in advance to meet the requirements. But we don’t.

Our education officials should plan ahead and then make noise if lawmakers refuse to appropriate the money needed. We’re sure the public will support any move to solve the problems before they erupt.

* * *

THEN we have the Y2K (Year 2000) or Millennium Bug problem, which could wreak havoc on computer networks after midnight of Dec. 31, 1999, or just over five months from now.

Everyday, we hear reminders on radio for us to be Y2K-compliant. While it is desirable to have everybody apprised of the problem and the need for speedy compliance with the law mandating adjustments, maybe the commission tasked to handle this problem should go directly to those companies or organizations that must comply with the Y2K law.

A commuter on a jeepney would not be concerned with this Y2K warning blaring on the radio. On the other hand, the chief executive of a big company with a computer network who should be concerned may not be reached by this information campaign beamed at the wrong targets.

Those running the campaign should go directly to those who must comply and press them periodically for compliance. This means that there should be a complete list by now of all those who must comply. The law requires those affected by the Y2K bug to report, but suppose they don’t? Some of them nay not even be familiar with the Y2K law.

We can almost see it — everybody frantically rushing about, cramming, screaming, improvising to be Y2K-compliant in the last two months of this year.

* * *

WHATEVER they say about a Navy vessel having bumped another Chinese fishing boat in an area in the Spratlys being claimed by the Philippines, Postscript says we should give our boys the benefit of the doubt.

It’s no joke maneuvering in the high seas while trying to chase or apprehend vessels testing our Navy’s mettle. We assume that our boys will not deliberately inflict damage on the vessels in their care just to apprehend alien fishermen who try to be difficult.

Police officers manning California Highway Patrol cars are authorized to use force if necessary in apprehending fleeing criminals. They may use their official patrol cars to bump the car of a violator or a criminal trying to outmaneuver them on the road.

Our Navy does not have a similar order.

As we keep saying, if these fishermen don’t want to get hurt, they should stay away from disputed areas. There are many other good fishing areas where they can fish all they want in peace.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 22, 1999)

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