POSTSCRIPT / April 20, 2000 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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We favor partial news blackout on Abu Sayyaf

THE story of two congressmen that lawmakers were bribed to approve the Omnibus Power Bill leading to privatizing the National Power Corp. has so many loose ends. One starts to wonder who set them up for that amateurish attempt at an exposé.

Sectoral Rep. Renato Magtubo looked confused when he displayed wads of bills amounting, he said, to P500,000 representing an alleged bribe for voting for the bill. But if Magtubo voted against the measure, as he said, why would any lobbyist pay him after the voting?

Party-list congressman like Magtubo, especially those who are against the bill anyway, do not count in the high stake game dominated by the LAMP congressmen under the sway of Malacañang.

The LAMP majority was in full control. There was no sense in taking unnecessary risks and wasting P500,000 on Magtubo and each of the minority lawmakers opposing the bill.

* * *

THE incredible script continued to crumble with the publication of a list of more than 100 big names in business, most of them foreign entities, which have been following up the privatization of the NPC.

Now, why would an eager-beaver on the list pour millions in bribes without any assurance that the bill would be (1) passed also by the Senate, (2) affirmed by the bicameral conference committee, (3) signed into law by the President, (4) upheld by the Supreme Court when challenged, and (5) carried out with an iron-clad guarantee that the NPC would go to whoever took the initiative of doling out bribes?

That’s a long, costly Way of the Cross for whoever was allegedly dispensing the multi-million-peso bribes this early. It does not make business sense.

* * *

WHAT’S more credible is the story of other congressmen (who had admitted receiving similar doles) that the money came from the office of Speaker Manuel Villar as a bonus or pabaon for the coming holidays.

It is an open secret in the House that when the session prepares to go into a long recess, as in this case of the Holy Week break, many congressmen routinely are handed substantial amounts for having been cooperative and to help defray their expenses during the holidays.

It is considered good politics on the part of the House leadership to include some opposition members when bonuses are given out.

Some opposition solons often talk of their straying to the office of the Speaker for this thoughtful baon as their own Minority Leader Feliciano Belmonte does not have the logistics for this expensive operation.

* * *

THE expected participation of foreign entities in the fight to grab control of a privatized NPC has raised legal highbrows, because the Constitution bans foreign ownership or control of public utilities.

A mere statute like the Omnibus Power Bill cannot amend or run counter to the Constitution. Control of a power utility by a foreign firm or a consortium with foreign equity is likely to be challenged on constitutional grounds.

Such a suit would make longer and rougher the road that the NPC must take on its way to privatization. This point alone makes the early doling out of goodwill money by any of the more than 100 interested parties illogical and of doubtful business sense.

Congressmen peddling the bribery yarn better check on the motivations of their scriptwriters or — like Linggoy Alcuaz of the (now) Silent “Majority” — ask in advance for the media script for the week.

* * *

WITH the Lenten season upon us, it occurred to us to ask what Islamic leaders in the South and elsewhere are doing about the obviously unIslamic act of the Abu Sayyaf gang of beheading innocent civilians held hostage in Basilan.

The bandits claimed to have executed two male hostages yesterday and threatened to continue killing more of their captives if their continually changing demands are not met promptly.

Does Islam tolerate the summary execution of civilians, including a priest and some children, whose only “sin” was their having been around when the Abu Sayyaf in a moment of madness decided to round up hostages?

Does Islam tolerate kidnapping for ransom, and the summary execution of hostages if ransom demands are not met?

If not, what are Islamic leaders doing? The blood is also on their hands.

* * *

AS a general principle, we are against news suppression. But we support the idea of a partial, temporary news blackout being imposed on the current Abu Sayyaf problem and all related government operations.

Propaganda is an important component of the terror strategy of that wayward fundamentalist group. Media attention provides wind to its propaganda sail.

A limited news blackout, particularly the banning of all media coverage in defined areas of conflict in the Basilan area, can be justified by considerations of national security.

The very survival of the state takes precedent over media’s right to be physically in the area of conflict, to interview persons and to take pictures. It is much like ringing a disaster area with a police line.

* * *

ALONG with the enforcement of this limited ban, all government personnel will be prohibited from giving out information on the conflict. Only one person in government will be authorized to gather and give out information.

The government side in the information war will be managed by the office of the person picked for that function.

In theory only members of media with passes will be allowed entry in the restricted area, but in practice no passes will be issued in the meantime.

A ban on reports or opinion pieces by private persons will not be imposed, since it cannot be enforced anyway. With modern communication, including radio, cellphones and the Internet, there will still be reports filtering out of the area, but the volume can be considerably reduced.

* * *

SUCH a limited temporary ban will affect primarily local media. The foreign press will try breaching the wall, and will succeed now and then.

Local media themselves might also try breaking through the restrictions, and may resort even to using materials gathered by the foreign press. This is normal.

To counteract this, the appropriate government office, possibly that of the Press Secretary, will have to work out a satisfactory arrangement with the local print and broadcast media to make the ban stick.

Based on what we know of local media, if the government levels with them, appeals to their patriotism, and takes them into its confidence, we think the mainstream media will cooperate under some conditions.

* * *

CONCEIVABLY, some of these conditions will be:

  • The partial, temporary ban applies only to the current Abu Sayyaf hostage problem.
  • The government will assure a continuous supply of legitimate press materials — and hopefully with a semblance of balance — on the problem.
  • The government will do its best to prevent anybody scooping the rest.
  • The ban will be lifted right after the government scores a breakthrough, such as the release of all the hostages.

* * *

THE Abu Sayyaf may have overreached and committed a blunder when it demanded the release of three terrorists – Sheik Abdulrahaman Omar, Abou Haidi and Youseff Ramsey or Ramzi Ahmed Yousef – who are in a US prison.

The trio was convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. The US government spent considerable time and resources capturing and putting them behind bars for the heinous crime.

Their persons and their cases are beyond the control or influence of the Philippine government.

Their inclusion in the Abu Sayyaf demands, which Washington curtly brushed aside, may just prompt the US to help (although covertly) the Philippine government neutralize the fundamentalists sowing terror in Basilan.

Another revolting element was added yesterday with the beheading of two of the hostages.

* * *

PERSONAL Postscript: We thank the readers who sent suggestions and tips on producing killer websites for some exciting Online projects we have in mind. Those who sent early messages as of yesterday were: Miguel K using a hotmail address, Rafael Abordo also of hotmail, and Karl Emmanuel de Leon, Managing Director of Kinetic HTML Co.

We have completed a course on HTML and can create passable web pages, but we want to produce killer (pamatay!) websites. Are there good courses/workshops around on the creation and management of websites? Suggestions are appreciated.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 20, 2000)

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