POSTSCRIPT / July 25, 1999 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Anarchists exploiting press freedom conflict?

DO the Gokongweis believe claims that their selling of The Manila Times “at the height of its credibility” was a blow to press freedom?

If they do, why did they sell the paper, become a witting party to its “death by strangulation,” and attend the office “wake” that impliedly assailed the sale of the Times?

On the other hand, if they don’t believe that the sale was a threat to press freedom, they should say so and help clear the air of speculation and recrimination. Their saying it might even be good for their other businesses.

By keeping quiet either way, the Gokongweis are unwittingly giving anarchists and opportunists a chance to exploit the confusion for their own ulterior agenda.

We hope Robina Gokongwei-Pe, whose baby the Times was, will take time to sort out her thoughts now that the paper is out of her hands — and speak out.

* * *

AS it is, the wild rumor machine has taken over the vacuum.

Despite the identification of the real buyer, cynics insist that it was presidential crony Mark Jimenez who bankrolled the purchase. Despite the absence of proof, a hysterical minority complains that the police had seized copies of the farewell issue of the Times.

There were even reports that other cronies were poised to buy another newspaper having a spat with Malacañang. The owners had to call an urgent general assembly of their employees last Friday to belie reports that they were about to sell out.

Already, a crowd is milling around the old oak tree, replacing the yellow ribbon wound ‘round it with the front pages of a paper in trouble.

A motley group is threatening to march again to EDSA, except that they may get lost in the helter-skelter of overpasses, rail lines, excavations, traffic and the tangle of steel and scaffolding on what was once the breakaway highway of 1986.

* * *

INDUSTRY sources have it that before it was sold to businessman Reghis Romero, the Times was printing 5,000-7,000 copies daily. At least a third of that PO (print order) is reportedly returned as unsold copies.

Despite the brave and dedicated efforts of the editorial staff, the paper could not make even a dent in the market ruled by three broadsheets. The paper reportedly was bleeding at the rate of P700,000 to P1 million a month, month after month.

The P20 million that Romero paid for the name and goodwill of the paper was not even enough to recover the minor fortune that the Gokongweis had sunk into the enterprise that started as a gift to Robina from her father John.

* * *

WE are not privy to the decision process of Robina, but knowing her to have good business sense, we doubt if on the eve of the closure of the paper she would deviate from her characteristic wise spending and splurge on a reported final PO of 70,000.

What for? Why throw away good money after bad, especially when she was going to close the paper anyway and later sit down to start paying the separation benefits of her 180 employees?

Many curious readers who wanted copies of what was imagined to become a collector’s item could not find them on the sidewalks simply because there were not enough copies.

Talagang mahirap maghanap ng kopya ng Times. Even before the sale to Romero, it was difficult finding copies of the Times at newsstands. It was unlikely that this marketing weakness was solved suddenly on the last day of the paper.

* * *

COMPOUNDING the circulation problem was the sudden interest in the paper. For instance, we were talking to an official the other day and he told us of how he sent his security aide to buy 20 copies for file and posterity.

His security aide, who was in his usual polo barong, could have been mistaken for a government agent sent to corner the copies. We know of other individuals who do not habitually buy the Times but who bought several copies that day.

(The irony was that the interest in the Times was whetted by its own competitors, which kept featuring prominently on their front pages the travails of the paper. Some of them wanted to link up and amplify their own problems with Malacañang?)

Replicate the unusual bulk-buying in several places and you have an artificial scarcity that is ready-made for malicious minds to report the alleged confiscation of bundles of the paper by the police.

* * *

ADD to this the open disdain of President Estrada for his vicious critics in the press and you have a situation susceptible to perceptions that the government is running after selected targets in media.

Mr. Estrada strikes us as the type who would not hide his ill feelings for his tormentors. Our impression is that even now that he is president, he still enjoys displaying his displeasure and having everybody watch as he exacts his sweet revenge.

While other presidents would feign innocence or disinterest as their operators covertly go after their enemies, Mr. Estrada appears to have no qualms about openly going after his perceived enemies.

That makes more difficult the job of his public relations handlers in trying to project him as a friend of media who is just misunderstood. He cannot, or does not want to, hide his ill feelings.

The President is not above resorting to juvenile antics in his quarrel with media. One recent incident illustrating this was his barring two reporters of his favorite (read “pet peeve”) newspaper from a merienda with the Malacañang press. That was really petty.

* * *

MEANWHILE, why should Bataan Rep. Enrique Garcia follow suggestions of some Supreme Court justices that he go back to Congress to amend the law instead of pleading with the high court to stop the lifting of price controls over products of the oil oligopoly?

Garcia has filed a petition for the tribunal to declare unconstitutional Section 19 of RA 8479. That section lifts price controls on oil products after a five-month transition despite a constitutional mandate for the state to regulate monopolies/oligopolies.

Note that the Supreme Court itself ruled in the earlier Tatad and Lagman cases pertaining to the oil industry that the oil cartel dominated by Shell, Petron and Caltex is an oligopoly.

If it is, as the court itself had ruled, why should the tribunal block moves to regulate it? Garcia says that the only effective and immediate protection available to the consuming public is price control under RA 8479. Its Section 19 removing price controls is unconstitutional, he says in his petition.

* * *

WHAT megawatt arguments have been applied on the justices that would make them throw out a petition for them to rule on the constitutionality of Section 19 and to suggest to the petitioner to ask Congress instead to correct any constitutional flaw?

The high court cannot shrink from its duty to rule on the constitutionality of any law. There is no other forum – no, not Congress — for raising the issue. The good justices know this basic fact, but why are they arguing in favor of the oil companies instead of facing the proper question of constitutionality?

As Garcia points out, there is no law that is not an exercise of congressional wisdom and judgment. Does this mean, the congressman asks, that no law can ever be declared by the tribunal as unconstitutional? He said that would be ridiculous, whimsical, capricious and arbitrary.

If a citizens is to be sent shopping for a judicial form in Congress every time he raises a constitutional point, what is the Supreme Court for? And why would we invest the legislature with such a judicial function not intended in the Constitution?

* * *

IN the oral arguments last July 13, Justice Reynato Puno opined that monopolies are not bad and are not to be regulated per se. He obviously means that, under Section 19, Article XII, of the Constitution, they are to be regulated only when the public interest so requires.

Garcia argues that public interest requires price control. Remove that and you strip consumers of their only protection against the whimsical and avaricious overpricing of the oil oligopoly, he says.

He adds that even with price control the oil companies will be protected and will enjoy reasonable profits because of the automatic pricing formula that is market-oriented and synchronized with the movement of world prices and the changes in the peso-dollar exchange rate.

Arbitrary overpricing, which is the consequence of the lifting of price control, hurts the middle and low income consumer since the prices of oil products impact on the prices of basic goods.

As underscored by Garcia, any excessive pricing or overpricing by the Big Three unjustly diminishes the purchasing power of the common people. Their incomes shrink in real value and their money buy less and less.

Garcia, who has worked with the oil industry in a sensitive position, expresses fear that factors other than law and logic would sway the court. He says:

“I’m somewhat worried and wary. I know the Big Three are very wealthy and influential. A columnist even wrote recently that the Big Three wrote the first and second deregulation laws. I had the feeling that my crusade for the people was an uphill battle. After all, the Big Three have unlimited facilities and support services at their command. In contrast, I and the people have nothing but reason on our side.”

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 25, 1999)

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