I’ll be surfing the channels for news when suddenly a blank screen appears. It’s the channel that once featured ABS-CBN. And, even now, I can’t look at it without feeling sick.
What happened to the once wildly popular network is monumental news in the Philippines. For those of you living on another planet (or in another country), the news is this; that two weeks ago a Philippine congressional committee voted to reject renewal of the gargantuan network’s operating franchise. And, ever since, the air has been buzzing with arguments both pro and con.
Critics contend that the move is just the latest example of an authoritarian president silencing media outlets he deems unkind. Those supporting the move maintain that it’s entirely justified given scores of franchise violations dating back to before Duterte took office. And somewhere in between sits much of the viewing public, including, until recently, this humble columnist.
Several weeks ago I wrote a piece debunking claims that another media outlet, the online publication Rappler, had fallen prey to Duterte’s wrath. It appeared shortly after the company’s CEO, Maria Ressa, and one of her reporters got convicted of libel. Then, as now, both domestic and foreign press screamed foul, asserting that the President was suppressing media dissent. After examining the court’s decision, however, I came to a different conclusion; that–pressured or not–the judge had probably decided correctly in ruling Ressa and her cohorts guilty.
The ABS-CBN situation is harder to call.
First, because Duterte has made no secret of his aim to bring down what he calls the national “oligarchy” including the owners of ABS-CBN. And second, because the decision itself specifically catalogues the network’s alleged transgressions against Duterte and others.
“Under Philippine law,” the document reads, “broadcast companies, which get their franchise from Congress… are not allowed to favor any candidate…” Nonetheless, the ruling continues, “ABS-CBN is accused of favoring candidates and using its closeness to favored candidates to gain political and economic advantage. Specifically, during the 2016 election, ABS-CBN appeared biased against then Presidential candidate Rodrigo Roa Duterte.”
The document also asserts that the network allegedly aired “inappropriate,” material “offensive to the sensibilities of the viewing public,” and that ABS-CBN stands accused of “biased reporting,” in “sensational, misleading or patently untrue news items.”
And yet, the committee’s report concludes, none of that formed the basis for the final ruling. So, why then, was the franchise renewal denied?
According to the report, the reasons are many including:
–That ABS-CBN’s primary owner, Eugenio Lopez III, violated the country’s 1987 Constitution prohibiting foreign ownership or management of Philippine media. Specifically, that–though born in Boston, Massachusetts of two Filipino parents–he kept and exercised U.S. citizenship exclusively until 2001 when, at age 50 and already deeply ensconced in upper-level management, he finally requested and received dual citizenship.
–That, all this notwithstanding, even dual citizenship itself constitutes a flagrant and probably illegal conflict of interest in the “sensitive and vital position of mass media in national development… security, and… protection… of the Philippines.”
–That a majority of the company’s investors (62.6%) are foreigners, thus potentially allowing them an illegal measure of control.
–That ABS-CBN violated the terms of its franchise by charging viewers to access otherwise-encrypted pay-per-view channels.
–That the company violated many labor laws resulting in 67 pending–and hundreds of previous–cases against it.
–And finally, that ABS-CBN has avoided paying its fair share of taxes for decades through loopholes violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
As in the Ressa case, it’s impossible to know to what extent Duterte and his cronies directly influenced this outcome. And, as with Ressa, if the allegations are true then it doesn’t really matter. Unfortunately for ABS-CBN, it appears reasonable to conclude that they are.
The days following the fateful decision have been filled with fierce accusations that it violates freedom of press; thunderous laments by journalists and others about to lose their jobs; and even candlelight vigils in poor barangays, where residents are praying publicly for the network’s return.
All of that is very sad. Finally, though, this is about the rule of law; whether it applies to everyone regardless of wealth, position, and power, or is it selectively enforced? And so I sit watching that blank screen, anxiously waiting to see what comes next.
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David Haldane is the author of an award-winning memoir called “Nazis & Nudists.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an American journalist, essayist, and broadcaster whose radio work received a 2018 Golden Mike from the Radio & Television News Association of Southern California. He lives in Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their two children. http:///felixr28.sg-host.com
Originally published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily