Closing down ABS-CBN

Above public need, the pleasure of the president!

IN THE midst of the tension and fear over the pandemic and requisite community quarantine, the government has forced a major media company off the air, literally closing it down. ABS-CBN has been cast in near total darkness.

Government closure of any large company affects many lives and leads to the loss of too many productive jobs. A democratic government should even be more careful in shutting down a media enterprise because this would violate fundamental rights of free expression and media freedom enshrined in our Constitution. 

The regulators at the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued a cease and desist order that closed down ABS-CBN Corporation on May 5, promptly executed on the day after the current franchise expired. As  the House of Representatives had failed to act on its application, Solicitor General Jose Calida was reported to have warned the NTC regulators that he would file charges against them, if it allowed the network the grace period to continue operating, which it has the power to do. 

What kind of mean spirit moves these men of power to act with such malevolence?

Legislators believed that there was no reason not to renew the franchise. Any issues raised against the renewal could be addressed by the appropriate agencies. During a Senate hearing on the issue, the Justice Secretary himself prescribed this legal action as an option pending the decision of the House where all franchise laws originate.

ABS-CBN is unrivalled in its reach throughout the hills and valleys of the archipelago; its closure at this time deprives many Filipinos in remote areas with their only connection to the outside world.  Among the largest in the region, the network is followed by many Filipinos in diaspora, in capitals from from SEAsia, the Middle East and the US. Filipinos abroad rely on ABS-CBN for the latest news from home, follow their favorite drama and entertainment program, keeping them in touch with their roots. 

CMFR believes in media diversity.  There is value in the small media that serve grassroots communities. But it also notes the critical need for the broad reach of a giant network like ABS-CBN, which can mobilize impressive resources to air timely warnings of imminent public danger, to disseminate crucial information in times of emergency, saving lives and mitigating the impact of calamity and disaster with appropriate assistance.. How ironic then that this should be happening in the midst of a pandemic when daily, citizens are in need of information and guidance. 

Television also remains a major source of political information, vital to the effective functioning of an electoral democracy. The loss of a major network limits the possibilities of civic engagement and political participation.

What is gained by such ruthlessness?

Recall that for almost a year, President Rodrigo Duterte had made clear repeatedly that he wanted to punish ABS-CBN by cancelling its franchise. The president complained that the network, pointing to the family owners, the kind he had begun to castigate as “oligarchs,” had failed to air all the political ads his campaign had paid for. Never mind the network’s explanation that the Manila office got the orders from its office in Davao too late, with little airtime left for airing.  ABS-CBN had offered to return the money that was paid. Although Duterte won and became president, this mishap clearly still rankled.

So Calida and NTC following the president’s lead are simply out to please their piqued and sulking president. Such pettiness seems in the end to define the administration.  But there is another tendency that opposed the objectives of a news media enterprise. The president does not like to be criticized, to be questioned, a affliction that has infected other public officials.

Or are his underlings getting ahead of him? If so, this case would reflect the choice of subalterns, the poor quality of governance, reflecting weakness of the leader. There are other examples of how poor implementation has messed up even the good measures to benefit the people. Recall only the recent fiasco over the distribution of social amelioration and other aid to the poor. These failures have added greater suffering on so many people.

The sorry state of ABS-CBN delivers a message to every media company. Should it be the pleasure of Duterte, this could happen to other news organizations; which would then spell the end of press freedom under this administration.

CMFR out of a sense of civic duty has made clear its position on franchise power. It must liberated from politics, and the power assigned to an independent commission. But commissions can be autonomous only to the extent that those to whom they are entrusted recognize that their duty is to the people and not to any person in power.

Filipinos show that degree of political maturity when their obligation to public service and public welfare are the only paramount mandate. 

Thus must the people served by a free media find the courage to protest, to raise their voices against the closure of ABS-CBN.  Only when the public is moved to exercise their right to free speech and expression can the Constitutional grant of its protection have full meaning.