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E-sabong brings more trouble than good

The Manila Times logo The Manila Times 27/02/2022 Marit Stinus-Cabugon

CEBU's public was shocked to learn that four policemen in active service and one dismissed were behind the brutal February 13 robbery and murder of Maria Louela Baringui-an, a barangay (village) councilor and candidate for municipal councilor, and her husband, Peter, in the town of San Fernando, Cebu. Equally shocking was it to read about Laguna PPat. Glenn Angoluan, who robbed several convenience stores in order to pay his growing debt. The debt reportedly had reached about P1 million and stemmed from the policeman's addiction to off-site betting on cockfights aired online, the so-called e-sabong.

E-sabong is the government's latest golden-egg laying hen with the fading glory of POGOs (Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators). The billions of pesos that the government is already making on online cockfighting are obviously revenues badly needed after two years of the pandemic. As Jose Rizal sarcastically said in Noli Me Tangere, vice pays for its freedom by funding schools, bridges and highways. "Blessed be the vice which produces such bountiful results!"

Vice — blessed or not — and crime, unfortunately, often go hand in hand, as the case of patrolman Angoluan reminds us. Indebted gamblers have been kidnapped, tortured, even killed by those they owe money to. There was the 2017 attack on the Resorts World casino in Manila by a man whose life was destroyed by gambling. Now we have a case of 31 missing sabungeros (cockfighters). They are believed to have been abducted. Are they still alive? The first case reportedly happened in April last year, shortly after the first two e-sabong operators were granted licenses by Pagcor (Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.). The Senate Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs on February 24 started an inquiry into the alleged kidnappings and other matters related to e-sabong. The committee has requested Pagcor to temporarily suspend the licenses of the seven e-sabong operators. It was also suggested that GCash be removed from the payment system. GCash, unlike credit cards, is easily available to most people.

According to a May 10, 2021 article in Bilyonaryo.com, applicants for license to operate e-sabong must put up a P75-million bond and pay a "fixed regulatory fee of P12,500 per fight or P75 million per month (or 200 fights per day, excluding fights that end up in a draw)." Because of these terms, some applicants backed out, the publication claims. "Sky is the limit on betting in e-sabong," the article goes on, "as Pagcor has only imposed a minimum bet of P100 per fight." Two hundred fights a day (can that really be true?) per operator who accepts bets as low as P100 from anywhere in the country. Compare this to ordinary, traditional cockfighting — with its old-fashioned, onsite betting — which is restricted as to which days and how many days they may be conducted.

There has been some debate as to whether the license to operate granted by Pagcor is sufficient legal basis for e-sabong. Pagcor has, so far, granted licenses to seven entities. Three of the seven licenses were issued in October 2021. However, it has also been argued that a franchise from Congress is required to make e-sabong legal. The House of Representatives granted Lucky 8 Star Quest Inc. (owned by Atong Ang) a 25-year franchise in September 2021, and a similar franchise for Visayas Cockers Club Inc. was approved at committee level last November. Thus, it would appear that e-sabong operators themselves believe that a franchise is necessary. Of course, it also gives Congress a higher degree of oversight and power over e-sabong.

The deliberations on the Visayas Cockers franchise revealed that not all legislators favor e-sabong. While the national government needs revenues and thousands of people are employed in the cockfighting industry, the question is whether the price we as a society are paying is worth it. Patrolman Angoluan might be an extreme case but his case is also likely only the tip of the iceberg. We already know that addiction to online games is a problem, even among adults. E-sabong, however, isn't a game but for real because you bet real money. "The poor go there [to the cockpit] to risk all they have, desirous to gain without labor. The rich go there to entertain themselves," Rizal wrote. Risking it all has become so much easier with our gadgets. E-sabong operators are making staggering profits and though this is not a crime, this profit-taking comes at the expense of ordinary Filipinos, including minors (obviously, the identity verification process that Pagcor requires operators to enforce isn't foolproof). Robert Roque Jr. in his Dec. 9, 2021 commentary on philbiznews.com calls it outright immoral that we allow the "[sucking] into e-sabong" of the savings of "fathers and mothers whose bank accounts and wallets are depleted," particularly when we consider the "unprecedented unemployment and underemployment." I could not agree more.

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