Regulatory policy

E-sabong’s investigation reveals wrong policy

A SENATE investigation into the disappearance of 31 people involved in online cockfighting, known locally as e-sabong, refutes arguments for legalizing gambling in the Philippines. Almost all of the senators signed a resolution urging regulators to suspend e-sabong, at least until a missing persons case is resolved.

This measure, Senate Resolution 996, does not go far enough, however. The resolutions are suggestions only, and so far the gambling regulator, the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor), seems reluctant to act. This may be a reaction to mixed signals coming from President Rodrigo Duterte. And so for now, Pagcor cites legal and technical obstacles to implementing the resolution.

Meanwhile, there are no leads in the case of the missing people, and hopes of finding them alive fade or dwindle. Their plight could attract more attention and sympathy if the country were not so preoccupied with political campaigning ahead of the May elections.

Gambling operator Charlie ‘Atong’ Ang testifies before the Senate Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs on March 4, 2022. SENATE YOUTUBE CHANNEL SCREEN CAPTURE

Plus, many don’t seem surprised that some law enforcement officials were implicated in the disappearance of these cockfighting aficionados. This development may just sound familiar. But the seemingly ruined reputation of the Philippine National Police (PNP) is already eroding public trust in this institution and compromising its ability to protect people from criminals. Even those who disagree might concede that shady law enforcement news is of no use to the PNP.

The Philippines is already known for having weak law enforcement capabilities. This is apparently why criminal syndicates flock here; they hope to escape arrest and prosecution.

In this context, this disappearance case reinforces an argument made in this space before – that the government should exit the gambling industry because the negatives outweigh the possible gains. Policy makers should give equal consideration to the downsides of gambling, legal or otherwise.

The argument that the government can derive huge revenue from legalized gambling is an incomplete picture. The possibility of earning more seems less appealing when one notices shady characters and possibly criminal syndicates drawn to these legalized vices.

More solid support

Going forward, senators and members of Congress should take a stronger stance in the next Congress which will begin after the election. First, they should repeal the law that allows e-sabong.

Second, the government should review Pagcor’s mandate and limit it to regulating casinos rather than operating them. Government-owned casinos should be closed or privatized.

Proceeds from the sale could provide seed funding for social programs. But if the authorities choose to retain ownership and simply hand over the operation of the casinos to the private sector, then the dividends and other fees to be collected could be earmarked for these programs. As things stand, it seems problematic for Pagcor to be both regulator and competitor of private casinos.

At the same time, authorities should consider the pros and cons of other similar activities that have been permitted, including electronic bingo, horse racing and even raffles. Similarly, the government should review the policies governing the Philippine Offshore Gambling Operators or POGO.

To better regulate these companies, the next government should consider limiting them to a few economic zones. Of course, this is only the next best option if the game cannot be completely eliminated.

To go further, the next government should impose a moratorium on new casinos and other types of gaming operations. In all honesty, some legitimate gaming companies try to behave responsibly and follow the laws. Nonetheless, expansions of existing businesses should be limited to their locations at present.

By grouping them into a smaller area, enforcement of regulations and the fight against illegal activities could be easier. Of course, there are no guarantees. It is in the nature of criminals to try to evade laws and regulations.

Admittedly, the recommendations mentioned here are unlikely to be helpful in locating missing persons involved in e-sabong. We hope and pray that they will be found soon, safe and sound. Even in a bad scenario, their families deserve to have closure.

But more than an immediate resolution to this disappearance case, a full and honest accounting of the gaming industry and the policies that govern it is overdue.