Seares: ABS-CBN shutdown linked to freedom of the press? Depends on how it’s done.

Pachico A. Seares

“Any inordinate delay or arbitrary denial of a franchise renewal emasculates freedom of the press.”--Opposition Rep. Edcel Lagman, Jan. 6, 2020

THE House committee on legislative franchises has been sitting on eight bills that propose to extend the franchise of the giant broadcast network ABS-CBN.

They must be brought to the House of Representatives without further delay, Albay congressman Edcel Lagman expressed Monday (Jan. 6) the sentiment of the opposition and some administration allies that ABS-CBN be given a fair hearing.

Semblance of due process

The appearance or semblance of due process is what they are asking for. Those who push the franchise issue to be resolved before the March deadline—when the license expires for the broadcast business of ABS-CBN—know too well that the hearing might turn to be a sham.

How would they expect the administration-controlled House to vote for a new lease on life to the broadcast network when President Duterte has said many times in public that its franchise would not be renewed?

It was not something the President just devoutly wished for; it carried the weight of an order. Even if it is explained that Congress is independent—and that has not been suggested in the declarations—it is a known and accepted fact that what the President wills in the House, in this case expressly and repetitively, yes, what he wants is done by the House.

Still outvoted

Lagman and company may succeed in bringing to the floor the bills extending ABS-CBN’s franchise. But they could still be quashed to death.

What the plenary phase could do is probably earn some publicity about the fate of the broadcast network by casting more light on the issue than what has so far been done. Legislative supporters of ABS-CBN could speak out for its cause, which the network has failed to do because it has chosen to be silent in an apparent bid not to make the President angrier than he already is.

Press freedom line

Would the shutdown of ABS-CBN “emasculate” press freedom?

It would impair press freedom if seen as a threat on sectors of news media that print critical news and views of the administration, particularly on broadcast media outlets that require government grant to use the airwaves. They have a near-cliché for it: “chilling effect.” Show that you can send a behemoth of a broadcast company to its knees and you terrify everyone else.

Yet media as a whole could still function as a relatively free enterprise even if ABS-CBN must close its radio and TV operations. The present multiple platforms for media have virtually made suppression of information impossible. Closing down a newspaper or broadcast station would no longer be as effective deterrent against criticism as before.

Still, there is that persistent argument that any attack on media now, no matter how insignificant in results, could lead to bigger and wider assault.

Comparing with ML years

Lagman compares the President’s threats against the network as “ominously reminiscent of the unceremonious closure” of media companies during the martial law regime, which included ABS-CBN.

Not quite the same: Clampdown on media during the Marcos martial law was actual, total and effected by military force. They were not a threat on one or two media companies and not made as part of the legal process, under some color of the law. ABS-CBN gets it by legislative action or inaction. Rappler is facing several suits in court.

‘Emasculating’ media

There are many other media outlets that can carry the news and opinion that the public needs. Even ABS-CBN has a digital arm that may have even a wider reach than its radio and TV broadcasts, and that platform does not need a legislative grant.

The argument can be stronger on another tack—the loss of business and employment without fair hearing—but it may still not squeeze out the franchise from a hostile House. The scenario of more than 10,000 jobless employees and billion pesos worth of business lying idle might not persuade the President’s party and allies to change its mind on the issue.

Could the right to business and employment be cut off so “arbitrarily?” Yes and unfortunately much of the public might not care if that would be done. Should the decision be driven by something more weighty and meritorious than the wish to punish ABS-CBN for a personal and political grievance? Yes but still the House could deny the franchise, even if it could not cite a willful violation by the network.

‘Inordinate delay’

The House committee might not bring the ABS-CBN issue to the plenary session. That would be less bloody than taking it up on the floor.

“Inordinate delay” by the committee would be a less offensive accusation than actual butchery on the eight bills in full public view.