Duterte’s minions in Congress kill ABS-CBN franchise: The chilling effect on the Philippine free press gets more real than ever

The ABS-CBN main building in Quezon City is draped in the network’s colors.
| Inquirer.net photo

CONGRESS has ruled to deny a new franchise to ABS-CBN, the nation’s biggest broadcasting company that has been serving the Filipino people for more than 65 years.

The company has spearheaded the growth of the industry from analog to digital in providing news, information, entertainment and public services to Filipinos wherever they may be — from Manila to the far-flung islands of the Philippines to the different parts of the world kababayans call home.

On Friday, July 10, Filipinos all over the world, international news organizations and press freedom advocates were shocked to hear the verdict of the House committee on legislative franchises, which overwhelmingly voted, 70-11, against granting a franchise to ABS-CBN.

Perhaps the word “shocked” was not the most accurate word to use, because President Rodrigo Duterte had threatened to shutdown ABS-CBN several times for its reporting news and investigative stories that were critical of him and his war on drugs.

Duterte had likewise an axe to grind when the network was not able to air some of Duterte’s campaign ads during the 2016 Presidential Election and had not refunded the campaign for the unaired advertisements.

Contrary to the claims of his administration that the president is “neutral” on the franchise renewal issue and had no hand on the outcome of the hearing, Duterte, in no uncertain terms, had vowed to block the renewal of the franchise of ABS-CBN. And he had his army of supporters and allies in government to make sure that happens.

ABS-CBN was ordered to shut down the by the National Telecommunications Commission(NTC) after its old franchise expired on May 4, without any hearing pursuant to the rule of law. House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano failed to do his job to hear numerous petitions filed before House, with others dating back to 2014, during the time of President benign Aquino III.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Cayetano already determined that the issue was not a priority, and waited for the franchise to expire.

This tactic went against the industry practice, whereby a company could expect an automatic renewal of license/franchise, especially when the company has been employing 11,000 employees as in the case of ABS-CBN, especially during a coronavirus pandemic.

Moreover, the renewal of the franchise would be warranted when such a franchise had been used by the company for the greater good of the people, which ABS-CBN has proven through its decades of service to the Filipino people.

Unless there were violations to the terms and conditions of the original franchise. Should this be the case, then the hearings would be conducted in a timely manner, according due process to the company.

During such period that the issuance of franchise renewal was pending, companies were also allowed to continue operating until a final decision following a fair hearing had been made on franchise renewal. This was not the way it went with Congress in handling the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN.

After backlash following the shutdown of the network, Congress finally conducted “hearings”. But the hearings were used by lawmakers to grandstand for political purposes and to make sure the “vow” of the president is fulfilled.

And so even after all issues tactically and maliciously raised in the court of public opinion even before the hearings had been addressed by ABS-CBN in testimonies under oath, substantiated and affirmed by government agencies like the Department of Justice, Bureau of Internal Revenue, National Telecommunications Commission, Department of Labor that the network has not violated any terms of the franchise, the House committee on legislative franchises still ruled to kill the franchise of ABS-CBN.

“It is what is – a denial of a privilege granted by the State because the applicant was seen as undeserving of the grant of a legislative franchise. By no means can this franchise application be related to press freedom,” the lawmakers said in the House committee on legislative franchises resolution.

House Speaker Alan Cayetano even claimed the House legislative franchises panel did Filipinos a favor by moving against one of the country’s “oligarchs,” the Lopezes who own ABS-CBN.

But what is an “oligarch”? Merriam-Webster defined it as “member or supporter of an oligarchy.” Oligarchy is defined as “a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.”

Are the Lopzes oligarchs? In this case, the government has singled out the Lopezes from among the many oligarchs in the Philippines, especially those of Chinese descent and connections, many of them with strong ties to this government.

Moreover, whatever happened to the “oligarchy” in political terms – political power held by families to protect their own political and economic interests.

Ever heard of nepotism? The practice among those in power or influence of favoring relatives or friends. Or family members – parents, spouses, siblings, children of the same family and same last name all in government at the same time, generations after generations. You know who they are.

Rappler reported on the response of Vice President Leni Robredo on the shutdown of ABS-CBN: “Robredo then released a statement saying it will no longer be far-fetched for newsrooms to think twice when making editorial decisions after what lawmakers did to the country’s largest media network.,

Senator Grace Poe was also quoted from her statement saying: “The non-renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise indeed sets a dangerous precedent for all other franchises. The high and unforgiving bar to which the media entity was judged affects the legitimacy of all other franchise holders which use Philippine Depositary Receipts, tax schemes, and digital platforms – all of which were treated legal before the instant case.”

Speaker Cayetano responded: ”Both Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Grace Poe have also warned of the ‘chilling’ effect this will have on journalists and the freedom of expression. This is completely false,” insisting that the denial of ABS-CBN’s franchise will have a chilling effect only on those who have breached the law.

So what law was breached to rationalize the shutdown of ABS-CBN? Or is this a blatant use and abuse of power to silence critics and warn against the toxic venom of vendetta?

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Gel Santos Relos has been in news, talk, public service and educational broadcasting since 1989 with ABS-CBN and is now serving the Filipino audience using different platforms, including digital broadcasting, and print, and is working on a new public service program for the community. You may contact her through email at gelrelos@icloud.com, or send her a message via Facebook at Facebook.com/Gel.Santos.Relos.

Gel Santos Relos

Gel Santos Relos is the anchor of TFC’s “Balitang America.” Views and opinions expressed by the author in this column are solely those of the author and not of Asian Journal and ABS-CBN-TFC. For comments, go to www.TheFil-AmPerspective.com and www.facebook.com/Gel.Santos.Relos

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