What else is at stake in potential ABS-CBN shutdown?

Francesco “Paco” A. Pangalangan, Executive Director, Stratbase ADR Institute

Censorship takes many forms. Marcos jailed journalists the likes of Teodoro M. Locsin Sr., Max Soliven, Chino Roces, and Louie Beltran. Arroyo raided the Manila Tribune. And while we’re at it, the Spanish colonizers executed Jose Rizal the author of subversive novels.

The Duterte government’s Supreme Court petition to revoke the franchise of ABS CBN is not the first nor will it be the last attempt of an administration to curtail speech, but it is possibly the most sophisticated.

Solicitor General Jose Calida’s case purports to have nothing to do with free expression, merely with ownership rules under Philippine law. And indeed, his legal maneuver is not aimed at an individual political opponent or critic, but is instead targeted at a company, its “abusive practices” that violated its franchise, and its alleged attempt to circumvent constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership of mass media entities.

To Calida’s credit, his case doesn’t target ideas nor those who express them. Rather he targets the media network as a corporation, one that operates in a highly regulated field, namely, mass media, and an even more regulated medium, namely, broadcast media. It is thus doubly vulnerable to government interference.

Calida has also chosen an interesting battlefield upon which to take on the nation’s largest broadcast network, calling upon the highest court of the land to jump the gun on the Philippine Congress which alone holds the power to grant and extend franchises.

There are currently multiple bills filed in the Congress calling for the renewal of the franchise of ABS CBN, more than enough to signify a clamor among legislators to extend its franchise. But by pleading the Supreme Court to directly remove the network’s franchise, Calida seeks to set aside due process and is effectively robbing Congress of its primacy when it comes revoking franchises. Indeed that is why we call them “legislative franchises” to start with!

Recognizing though that any government interference in the operations of the country’s largest broadcast network could draw the ire of the viewing public, the administration also tried to gain popular support for their case against ABS CBN by stoking anti-elitist sentiments against it.

Similar to the administration’s recent attacks on Maynilad and Manila Water, the network was labeled “oligarch controlled”— the exact kind of populist rhetoric that pits “us versus them”, that landed Duterte in office in the first place, and has kept his satisfaction and approval ratings so high.

However, therein lies its weakness too. ABS-CBN broadcasts both news and entertainment. So, while its one thing to convince people to give up their freedom of expression to topple an “oligarch”, jeopardizing their popular game shows and beloved telenovelas is a whole another.

Cracks in Calida’s strategy began to show at this week’s Senate hearing, with administration officials failing to substantiate any of Calida’s accusation and popular Sens. like Manny Pacquiao and Lito Lapid coming to the defense of ABS-CBN.

It also didn’t help that Sen. Bong Go didn’t stick to Calida’s game plan either, opting to take a less subtle approach and linking ABS CBN’s franchise woes directly to the president’s hurt feelings over election ads aired by the broadcaster back in 2016.

Interestingly, not only does Go’s statement manage to deny his boss’ vindictiveness while at the same time describing him as exactly that, but it also gives us an uncensored look at the true motivations behind the threat to ABS-CBN’s franchise.

It explains why, despite the far-reaching impact that the cancellation of ABS- CBN’s franchise would have on our freedoms, and despite public clamor for its renewal, the administration’s allies in the lower House have dragged their feet on this issue for so long.

And why Calida, despite the lack of hard evidence, would have the courage to file a quo warranto plea with the Supreme Court in the first place m.

If Congress fails to extend the franchise of ABS CBN or if Calida’s quo warranto case against them is successful and the court removes its franchise, its effect reaches far and wide.

First of all, the removal of ABS CBN’s franchise would cause the loss of thousands of jobs. But more than that, it would have implications on media freedom, since a decision like that has a chilling effect on critics of the Duterte administration, it broadcasts that it is not afraid to selectively wield the law to harass and stifle criticism and opposition.

It would also weaken Congress as a public institution, by eroding the primacy of its legislative powers and effectively lessening it alongside its supposed co-equal branches of government.

Not only that, but it would set the precedent for more attacks against enterprises deemed as political obstacles to the administration and could pave the way back to another crony capitalist era not seen since the Marcos dictatorship.

The Duterte administration’s latest attempt to curtail speech is indeed strategic. It takes on the country’s largest broadcast network by combining its strong hold on Congress, with its tried and tested anti-elitist rhetoric, and an innovative legal maneuver.

However, there is one thing they may have forgotten, a populist government should know better than wielding its power to the point of abuse and mess around with its people’s access to “bread and circus”— to their livelihood, information and entertainment.




This article was originally published in philstar.com.

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