POSTSCRIPT / May 31, 2001 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Time to ask FVR anew about the P8B for AFP

IN fast-tracking the power industry restructuring bill for immediate approval, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said she won’t sign it into law if it does not assure low electricity rates.But there is no real assurance for low prices in this country, Madam President, even when the assurance is etched in a legal document.The well-connected water companies that bought the Nawasa under a contract assuring low water rates are now asking for the provision on rates and foreign currency adjustments to be amended – and are likely to get it.

The Meralco, which is limited to a maximum profit of 12 percent of its capital base, has succeeded in boosting its profits reportedly by including in its base even those assets that have nothing to do with its primary function of distributing electricity. Twelve percent of a bloated capital base means bloated profits.

* * *

DO we rely on the say-so of the horse traders buying the National Power Corp. that electric rates will go down after they take over the NPC? No way!

Until we see an iron-clad pricing formula in the power bill, we will not believe President Arroyo’s own avowals that the measure would ensure low, stable prices and predictable supply over the long term.

The bare fact is that the privatization of the NPC is being rushed because some smart businessmen, in and out of government, will make a killing. They have spent hundreds of millions already lobbying for it in Congress and Malacañang and do not want to spend more millions in the incoming legislature.

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THE government is talking of a news blackout on the latest Abu Sayyaf kidnapping as a military and propaganda necessity. But while the government is right in this regard, a blackout is not acceptable. Nor is it enforceable.

Like a press release, a news blackout can only be offered to the media for consideration.

Instead of an unwieldy blackout, the government may want to consider a news brownout or a grayout. To move to this middle ground, it can explore immediately with media bosses ways of their cooperating on the Abu Sayyaf problem.

* * *

NEWS management is done everyday by the government and the private media, without most readers and broadcast audiences being aware of it. The government knows, or should know, how it is done – and should just go ahead and do it.

On the face of it, news management looks sinister. But in case of war — and the government just declared war on the Abu Sayyaf — it can be justified. The ultimate justification for it is the war finally being won, with the help of media.

If the government asks media to cooperate to defeat the common enemy, it must justify the collaboration by winning the war.

Failure (as in terrorists invariably slipping through the usual military cordon) would be catastrophic. The temporary curtailment of the people’s access to information will be, on hindsight, denounced in the strongest terms.

* * *

A NEWS grayout can have these limited objectives: Deny the Abu Sayyaf a media forum, enable the government to inform the public despite the restrictions, and prevent unwanted disclosure of military plans and operations.

Beyond those limited goals, it teeters closer to full censorship.

The government has the right reasons for asking for media’s cooperation. While assuring a continuous flow of meaningful and truthful reports, it can explain why certain classified information cannot be reported.

Broadcast stations must be discouraged from airing live interviews with the Abu Sayyaf and using film clips. When terrorists call, stations can tape the conversations and broadcast only a basic report on the interviews. Comments tending to solicit sympathy or sow fear must not be used.

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THE keys to an effective grayout are goodwill and self-restraint — goodwill on the part of the government, and self-restraint on the part of media.

The government will not meddle in the media’s handling of the news. There will be no prior clearing with government censors. The media will use their own judgment on what to cover, publish or broadcast.

What the Malacañang Press Office managers should do immediately is sit down with media bosses to explain things and solicit their cooperation. If they can bring President Arroyo for the dialogue, so much the better.

* * *

WITH a bulging P100-million war chest and the universal condemnation of terrorism and kidnapping for ransom, voluntary news management in media on the Abu Sayyaf problem should not be difficult.

We refer here only to Filipino media who presumably love their country. We presume that the foreign media will scoff at the thought of government interfering with their work or inveigling them into a news grayout.

But if we Filipinos do our job well on a variety of related concerns, foreign media coverage of the Sulu-Basilan operations won’t be such a big problem, because the terrorists who are driven not by ideology but by money have a serious public relations handicap.

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THE government must understand that media have the own responsibility to their readers and audiences, so a blackout is unacceptable. Media must be assured of a continuous flow of relevant and reliable news (albeit managed by respected media specialists).

The owners and workers of broadcast media in the South should get special attention and assistance.

Local and foreign media intending to cover the operations must be required to register for their own protection. Field coverage will depend on the situation on the ground as determined by the local commander.

* * *

PRESIDENT Arroyo should watch out for the mental trap of thinking that she is facing a military problem. The military part is, at most, just 20 percent. Being a politician, GMA would be able to sense what the rest is.

One implication of this is that the P100-million earmarked by the budget office need not be spent largely on searching for and destroying the enemy.

Even now, people are asking if soldiers are entitled to the P1-million-per-head reward promised by the Commander-in-Chief for the capture of the terrorists.

The P100 million, or the bulk f it, may have come from intelligence funds, but that is not enough reason for it to be plowed back to the military.

* * *

CERTAINLY, the money is not to be used for military operations, since there is already a budget for that.

Neither should any part of it go to beefing up armaments, since there is supposed to be a whopping P8-billion for the modernization of the armed forces taken from the sale of Fort Bonifacio by then President Fidel V. Ramos.

If FVR, a roving ambassador of GMA, is in town, he should hie to Malacañang and tell her exactly where he put the missing P8 billion. He keeps saying the money is intact, but has not been able to say where he hid it.

* * *

A WEST Pointer, former defense secretary, chief of staff and Commander-in-Chief, General Ramos should be the most concerned that the skeletal armed forces be beefed up and modernized.

The P8-billion fund is just one of the many money matters identified with his administration that Mr. Ramos should clarify. He should do it now while an ally, President Arroyo, is calling the shots in the Palace.

We have this creeping feeling that some taxpayers are about to file plunder charges against Mr. Ramos to force him to explain many gargantuan financial scams during his administration.

* * *

SO if the Arroyo administration is insistent on building those detention resorts for resigned President Erap Estrada, it should consider making them multi-room affairs. Other Presidents may have to share the luxurious quarters when their turn comes.

When Mr. Ramos is also arrested on plunder charges, do we have to go through the same rigmarole of looking for a suitable resort for him?

By the way, are the five-star detention facilities for presidents only? Do we make room for small-time mayors, like Jinggoy Estrada who insists on tagging along and being detained with his father?

GMA may want to explain what the secret deal is on Jinggoy. Is it buy one-take one?

* * *

TO close the prolonged debate on where to lock up Erap (only), why don’t they just take him back to Cramp Crame where he was originally detained after the service of warrant?

After all, the main concerns are security and convenience for the Sandiganbayan trial. He is secure in Crame and is near enough to the courthouse, his lawyers and his families. So what’s the problem? Bakit pinapahirap pa?

As for Jinggoy, what’s wrong with the Quezon City jail? We’re sure incoming Mayor Sonny Belmonte will improve jail conditions anyway.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 31, 2001)

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