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July 17, 2020

Critics: ‘Political Motivations’ Show Why ABS-CBN Shutdown Is A Press Freedom Issue

Critics: ‘Political Motivations’ Show Why ABS-CBN Shutdown Is A Press Freedom Issue Employees and supporters of ABS-CBN Corp. light candles in front of the network’s office in Quezon City following the National Telecommunications Commission’s cease-and-desist order on May 5, 2020. Photo by Miguel de Guzman, The Philippine STAR

Employees of ABS-CBN Corp., including one of its well-known broadcasters Ces Drilon, announced that thousands of them would be losing their jobs beginning Aug. 31 after the House committee on legislative franchises rejected the network’s application for franchise renewal last July 10.

“This was one of the toughest days I had to face,” Drilon tweeted on Thursday, July 16, as she had to tell fellow workers that they would lose their jobs by the end of August.

“I lost mine too,” she said.

Though journalists and other workers of the broadcast giant were the ones affected by the non-renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said the issue is not about press freedom but the alleged violations of the company and the perceived abuses of its owners, the Lopezes.

Cayetano stressed that other media entities in the country are still existing and can report freely, thus there is no reason to accuse the Duterte administration and its allies that it is suppressing freedom of the press and of expression.

But critics of the government’s effort to shut down ABS-CBN’s free-to-air broadcast operations fear that the message had already been made clear: “Toe the line or get shut down,” as Sen. Risa Hontiveros put it.

Hontiveros, a former media practitioner herself, described the “chilling effect” of ABS-CBN’s fate: “May takot at pagbabanta ang mensaheng inihahatid ng gobyerno: kapag kaaway ka, puwede kang ipasara (The government’s message stokes fear and carries a threat: if you are an enemy, you may be shut down).”

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon warned: “The sword of Damocles will continue to hang perilously over other media networks. Both the legislators and the executive can wield the sword at their whim and caprice. This is when democracy starts to weaken.”

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility executive director Melinda Quintos de Jesus noted how government officials – from President Duterte to the congressmen led by Cayetano – have been trying to justify the closure of the network, the reason why the issue could not just be about a commercial business of an “oligarch” being closed down.

She said the many twists and turns since the issue began should not be lost on media practitioners themselves.

De Jesus explained that in the beginning, it was all about President Duterte’s animosity toward ABS-CBN for failing to air his political advertisements during the 2016 general elections and his gripes against the oligarchs. Then it became about the network’s alleged violations of the law to its influence over the public that could work for or against public figures.

“Now we go back to President Duterte’s grievances against the network and the oligarchs,” De Jesus told The Philippine STAR, referring to the Chief Executive’s speech on Monday, July 13, where he told soldiers in Jolo, Sulu that ABS-CBN insulted him and that he was happy to have dismantled the oligarchs controlling the country’s economy and people.

Like Hontiveros and Drilon, De Jesus said these efforts to pin down ABS-CBN in so many ways after it drew the ire of those in power would have an effect on the way media practitioners carry out their duties and responsibiities.

On the accusation that the Lopezes are part of the oligarchy operating to the detriment of the people, the government and the country, she said this could easily be countered by the fact that its businesses and other associations are public and can be subject to scrutiny.

“People know where they (Lopezes) are invested. So why close their media entity? Because of its influence? Who determines the influence of a media organization?” De Jesus asked.

“Why question the influence of the media when media exist precisely to project ideas and allow (public) discussion?” she asked, stressing that this is the reason why freedom of the press and of expression are guaranteed under the Constitution.

“The media institutionalize freedom of expression,” De Jesus added.

De Jesus also pointed out that ABS-CBN was shut down even after it was cleared by the Senate and several government agencies of any wrongndoing. Other businesses are penalized or brought to court for not paying proper taxes, she noted, but the firms are not shuttered.

The issues thrown against the network are not unique, she said, and even the perception or allegations that it meddled in politics could not be used to close it down.

“How did ABS-CBN use and exert its influence? In Germany, media are allowed to get aligned with a political party. Why shut it down and deprive people of access to information through political and state power? There’s multipicity of platforms, there is no monopoly. If people do not want to watch its shows, they’re free to do so,” De Jesus said.

“The media has constitutional protection because they evaluate, balance things and watch over those in power. That is their role,” De Jesus stressed.

University of the Philippines journalism professor Danilo Arao, for his part, is having none of presidential spokesman Harry Roque’s denials that Duterte was behind the shutdown of ABS-CBN.

Arao recalled the numerous threats made against the network by Duterte in his past speeches and said, “It takes (eight) semesters for journalism schools to explain a normative nine-word mission: to help shape public opinion by providing relevant information.”

“It takes 12 hearings for government to impose a repressive nine-word omission: ‘I will see to it that you are out,’ ” Arao added.

The Commission on Human Rights also noted the lack of consistency in the application of standards for franchise applications, considering that other networks face similar issues. It said any violations should have been dealt with in accordance with existing laws, and not by denying ABS-CBN a franchise altogether.

Unless Congress can disabuse the minds of the public that its decision was not based on a fair review and was devoid of any political consideration, the denial of the franchise gives a chilling effect on the freedom of the press,” the CHR said.

The Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines (PCP) said this was an issue of press freedom, because it exists “when journalists who have dedicated all their lives to the profession can continue to work freely because their programs and platforms still exist.”

“But these do not exist anymore, and the people these programs are supposed to be serving got the raw end of the deal,” the PCP noted. “Everywhere in the country, screens have turned black and radios have been silenced.”

It did not find the allegations hurled by congressmen substantial enough to justify the loss of a vital source of information especially for far-flung areas that only ABS-CBN reached.

“The mistakes were all administrative lapses that could have been subjected to whatever penalties are applicable under the concerned government bodies. Closing the giant media network for whatever lapses it could have committed was never and would have never been part of the deal in a just, nay a democratic, society,” it said.

The Philippine Association of Communication Educators said it “shall join electoral education initiatives to remind the voters that no one, not even lawmakers, shall curtail press freedom.”

“We will write in Philippine media books and we will always teach students enrolled in Communication and its allied fields that today, July 10, 2020, is an unfortunate historical moment because of the legislators and their invisible powers-that-be who assaulted press freedom,” PACE vowed.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines characterized the issue as a “struggle to defend independent and courageous journalism that exacts accountability and the rule of law.” It noted that since its founding during the dark days of martial law in 1974, “the threats have never ceased and we will never flinch and never cower.”

Cayetano bristled at “those who continue to push the Freedom of the Press card.

He claimed that “Congress is not stifling the right of any journalist, host, commentator, talent, or employee of (ABS-CBN) – or any Filipino for that matter – from criticizing the government.”

“We simply put an end to the privilege of one family in using a public resource to protect and promote their private interests,” said Cayetano, whose wife Lani occupies another seat in the House, whose sister Pia is a senator, and whose brother Lino is the mayor of Taguig City.

Cayetano did not address the fact that denying ABS-CBN’s franchise application meant gutting its main source of revenue – advertising spots that fetch high prices because of the high viewership of its shows.

Forcing ABS-CBN to stick to the small audiences of cable and online streaming means it will be hard-pressed to keep employing its thousands of workers. Its chief executive officer and president Carlo Katigbak told the Senate in May that it would be forced to resort to retrenchment by August if it could not resume its broadcasts soon.

On July 1, ABS-CBN Current Affairs writer and producer Nick Villavecer disclosed that his division “will temporarily stop production,” putting them out of work.

This explains the absence of current affairs programs in the schedule of ABS-CBN’s cable and online spinoff Kapamilya Channel. Affected shows are Umagang Kay Ganda, Kuha Mo, Rated K, Scene of the Crime Operatives, Matanglawin, Sports U, My Puhunan, #NoFilter, Mission Possible, Failon Ngayon and DocuCentral.

ABS-CBN’s news coverage will now be barebones, with only the evening newscast TV Patrol, Teleradyo channel and ABS-CBN News Digital remaining.

Further belying Cayetano’s claims is the fact that the legislative franchises committee’s report made numerous allusions to politically motivated grievances against the content aired by ABS-CBN.

This was on top of how several committee members aired their personal gripes against ABS-CBN’s news coverage and entertainment programs for 10 straight hours on July 6, right after Cavite 3rd District Rep. Jesus Crispin Remulla said that “we are not doing this job for our personal reasons.”

The report did stop short of categorically making recommendations, even as it observed that ABS-CBN “appeared biased against then Presidential candidate Rodrigo Roa Duterte.”

It cited the network’s failure to air Duterte’s campaign advertisement even as it was able to make time for “the last-minute airing of (then) Senator Antonio Trillanes’ black propaganda attack against Mayor Duterte,” which “exploit(ed) minor children to besmirch the name and reputation of Mayor Duterte.”

The report also claimed ABS-CBN violated its own rules during the 2016 vice presidential debate when Cayetano was specifically asked regarding Duterte’s rape joke during the campaign. It said there were comments that were “arbitrary, malicious, biased, and part of a larger design to undermine his candidacy.”

It further stated that Vice President Leni Robredo, to whom Cayetano lost, was “clearly favored when ABS-CBN aired her interviews” in all news programs throughout the day, while the other candidates supposedly appeared only in the lower-rated morning and late night newscasts.

Although the report laid out all these grievances, the committee said it “will not make a finding on the alleged biased reporting and the individual complaints (or) make a judgment on the content of ABS-CBN’s programs or its alleged meddling in politics.”

The report acknowledged that “the principles of press freedom, fair comment, and self-regulation of media militate against any attempt at such ruling.”

Yet, the committee said it “encourages ABS-CBN to carefully examine itself, and with humility, try to understand where all the persistent complaints about biased reporting, inappropriate program content, and political meddling are coming from.”

“Perhaps, by listening to the complaints and assessing itself, ABS-CBN will come to some realizations which hopefully will make it a better media entity, employer, and corporate citizen,” the report read.

Cayetano’s Facebook post on Tuesday, July 14 also accused ABS-CBN of having “sought to play Kingmaker, or Kingslayer.” He described Robredo and Sen. Grace Poe as “beneficiar(ies) of the network’s support.”

He also insisted that the franchises of GMA 7 and TV 5 “were approved without a hitch… because their exercise of the freedom of speech and of the Press, was never employed to mask the corporate practices of their owners that screwed the system and our people – to the tune of billions of pesos.”

The resolution adopted by the committee sought further inquiry into the practice of using Philippine depositary receipts to receive financial investment from foreigners without giving them any ownership or control over the company’s decision-making powers. The resolution also sought to look into the use of frequencies to carry multiple digital channels as pushed by the National Telecommunications Commission.

On June 29, GMA launched Heart of Asia as its first digital channel, an attempt to go up against Asianovela Channel and Jeepney TV aired by an ABS-CBN subsidiary using a frequency leased from AMCARA Broadcasting Network. Two days later, the National Telecommunications Commission ordered the TV Plus digital channels to cease operations, even if AMCARA’s franchise had not yet expired.

On July 13, three days after the House’s historic vote, Duterte proclaimed victory against “oligarchs,” without specifying who. It turned out the video recording was edited and his tirades against ABS-CBN were omitted, based on audio leaks of the President’s speech.

Sabi ko (I say) without declaring martial law, I dismantled the oligarchy that controlled the economy of the Filipino people,” he said in a speech before troops in Sulu. “Sinira ko ’yung mga tao na humahawak sa ekonomiya at umiipit. At hindi nagbabayad (I destroyed the people who control and suppress the economy. And are not paying).”

Roque on July 14 denied that Duterte referred to ABS-CBN’s owners, the Lopez family, and said he must be referring to other oligarchs. An unedited version of his speech, however, was leaked and belied the claim of Roque.

Takeover not allowed

With the ABS-CBN franchise now expired, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman warned against the proposal of Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte to temporarily use the radio and television frequencies of the network for the alternative distance learning program of the Department of Education.

Classes are set to resume next month amid the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic.

There have been rumors about a hostile takeover of ABS-CBN or the grant of the network’s lost franchise to other interested companies.

“Before the frequencies assigned to ABS-CBN are reallocated, the network must first be afforded the opportunity to exhaust all remedies,” Lagman explained.

He cited the network’s pending petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court to void the franchise denial under the tribunal’s expanded power of judicial review and the proposed legislation by people’s initiative.

Lagman believes that the proposal of Villafuerte and the reported interest of some businessmen to take over the franchise were proof of the “hidden agenda” behind the denial of ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal application.

“The hidden and insidious agenda for rejecting a fresh franchise for ABS-CBN will soon surface or be uncovered,” Lagman declared.

He issued the statement after Villafuerte, who voted against the network’s franchise grant, filed House Resolution No. 1044, which seeks to allow government to use vacant television and radio frequencies for remote learning.

Villafuerte said the frequencies would be “especially useful in areas not yet reached by digital infrastructure” such as some communities in the Bangsamoro region.

Lagman earlier accused Duterte of having a hand in the ABS-CBN franchise denial, citing the latter’s public pronouncement that he destroyed an oligarch in the country without declaring martial law. 

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