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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

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Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

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Shoot the Messenger
Image Control at the Estrada Presidency
By RICARDO SALUDO

November 23, 1999
Web posted at 7:15 p.m. Hong Kong time, 7:15 a.m. EDT


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Philippine President Joseph Estrada must really love the ancient Greeks. Though the former action star has never acted in a Sophocles play, he's big on two other legacies of Athenian times. One, of course, is democracy: the hugely popular politician won the May 1998 presidential elections with the biggest mandate in Philippine history (the polls themselves drew a record 80% of all qualified voters). But the other Grecian turn he has allegedly been making for some months now is less, well, democratic: bearers of bad tidings were promptly executed by the Greeks of old. In Estrada's case earlier this year, news of suspected irregularities and miscues by the administration or people close to it led to the closure and sale of one major paper, The Manila Times, and an ad boycott against another, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading national daily.

In addition, the president has been playing rough with his predecessor, Fidel Ramos, whom he has accused of trying to smear and destabilize his government. In one of the statements that apparently got Estrada's goat, Ramos spoke of the administration's "yo-yo" leadership, constantly bobbing from one policy to another. The ex-president says he's just passing along the views of business people at home and abroad. That line was not good enough for Estrada; he declared that Ramos was no longer his senior adviser. (Not that the advice wasn't appreciated: Estrada now holds regular meetings of the cabinet-Congress body created by Ramos to push urgent laws, as the latter had long been urging.) At the same time, an ad hoc investigative panel has come out with a 700-page report alleging billion-dollar anomalies in the past Ramos government.

A few weeks ago, Estrada seemed a properly contrite schoolboy after the public gave his approval ratings a good whack over alleged cronyism, media intimidation and the government's plan to amend the Constitution. In recent months, repeated hikes in prices of oil products -- with the doubling of world crude rates over the past year -- got even the masses, Estrada's biggest supporters, grumbling. So the president made some high-profile moves to fend off cronyism charges. He publicly admonished billionaire Lucio Tan that his beleaguered Philippine Airlines should not depend on protection. Senior advisers on housing and the Y2K computer bug have resigned over alleged anomalies. The government kept its hands off the takeover contest for a major bank, and promised to resolve the controversy over a mammoth coconut-levy fund to the benefit of millions of coconut farmers.

Then came the yoyo line, and Estrada was on the warpath again. Racheting up the pressure on Ramos is no big deal; the battle-hardened ex-general can take it and more, as long as due process is followed in sorting out the alleged misappropriations. The real problem is the seemingly heavy-handed moves on the media. Now, it emerges that the Times, after changing hands twice, is now controlled to the son of big-time presidential crony Mark Jimenez, as well as interests linked to other Estrada backers. Meanwhile, the ad boycott against the Inquirer seems to have ended, but only after a heart-to-heart talk among the paper's owners, key editorial staffers and the president. The lessons many will draw from all this is that the press has been chastised, and the president is as allergic as ever to unfavorable digs in print or on air. (If he goes that ballistic over newspapers and TV, he'd better not look at the stuff online.)

One hopes this Estrada strategy of image control is not Y2K-compliant. At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, it would do Philippine democracy and press freedom, not to mention the president's precious name, a mountain of good if his minders would put the word out that advertising boycotts are a thing of the past. And that media outfits that happen to displease Malacañang Palace will not find themselves on the block, chopping or auction. Then the president can rest assured that whatever news he reads in the morning paper, good or bad, is a lot closer to the truth. And that's better in the long run than any fabricated image.

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