Asian
Wisconzine
by Heidi M. Pascual
Losing Freedom of the Press in a Democracy?

The Philippines’ largest media company, ABS-CBN, is in danger of losing its franchise, which will expire at the end of March this year. This means, if
its franchise isn’t renewed, there will no longer be Channel 2 in Metro Manila (which airs the very popular noon program, Show Time, led by Vice
Ganda and Anne Curtis), radio DZMM (Radyo Patrol), and 101.9 FM station.


I confess I am fond of DZMM’s news programs, especially the radio station’s regular news commentators: Ted Failon, Anthony Taberna, Gerry Baja,
and Johnson Manabat. I also like the way DZMM’s field reporters (or Radyo Patrol) cover on-the-spot events. There’s more important information
gathered from them than from other stations’ reporters. I am also a fan of the radio station’s social-responsibility program at noon, where victims of
irregularities (both from government and private entities) are given air time and on-the-spot answers/solutions by corresponding public or private
authorities/spokespersons.


But why would the Philippine government deny ABS-CBN the right to continue its operations?


First, President Rodrigo Duterte is very vocal against the network. Apparently, ABS-CBN incurred the ire of Duterte even before he was elected
president, for being very critical and negative against Duterte. The network also aired ads of Duterte’s political nemesis, former Senator Trillanes,
also before election. The bad image of ABS-CBN, in the eyes of the present administration, continues even after election, for alleged bias that reports
only negative news about President Duterte and his administration.


ABS-CBN’s franchise was supposed to have been renewed during the administration of former President Noynoy Aquino (son of the late President
Corazon Aquino), but the congressional bills on the same did not pass during the 16th Congress. It is unfortunate that the media company is facing
a much tougher road to get its franchise renewed because the present House of Representatives has a majority of Duterte’s allies.


Very recently, the Philippine Office of the Solicitor General filed a Quo Warranto petition in the Supreme Court questioning the right of ABS-CBN to
hold a franchise to remain on the air. This strategy was also used to remove the former SC Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, a very strong critic of
President Duterte. The SolGen argues that ABS-CBN violated terms of its franchise. Let us discuss the issues put forward by SolGen Calida:
1)ABS-CBN abused its franchise because after selling TV-Plus channel boxes, an option Pay-Per-View followed (KBO), for only 30 pesos, allowing
viewers to watch selected movies. ABS-CBN answered this charge by stressing that all their offerings, including KBO, have the necessary
government and regulatory approval and are not prohibited by their franchise.


2)Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs) are investments to ABS-CBN Holdings, not to ABS-CBN Corporation, which can be bought by qualified
individuals, including foreigners. This is usually done to gather additional funds to expand a business. The SolGen claimed that ABS-CBN violated
the Constitution for selling PDRs to foreigners, when the law clearly states that all media companies in the Philippines must be 100 percent Filipino
owned. In the case of ABS-CBN, holders of PDRs are not considered owners or stock holders and they don’t have voting rights. The simple
explanation of a former Phil Stock Exchange head is, it’s like betting for a particular horse on a race, you have some shares if it wins, but it doesn’t
mean you own the horse.


3)Duterte’s SolGen also questioned the franchise of ABS-CBN Convergence, Inc., a telecommunications subsidiary of the corporation. ABS-CBN
explained that their subsidiary relationship is also in accordance with the law. Should the Supreme Court decide in favor of ABS-CBN (which is highly
unexpected), there is also the extreme difficulty to be faced in Congress. And, if approved in both houses (Senate and the House of Representatives),
President Duterte can still veto it!


At present, there is an ongoing debate among legislators and Duterte’s camp, as regards the validity of ABS-CBN continuing to be on the air even
after March 30 (the expiration of its franchise), while the bills in Congress are still pending, as well as the decision of the Supreme Court on the
matter.


Some legislators have expressed their support for ABS-CBN’s renewal of franchise, and many prominent groups and celebrities, as well. Yet, the
Duterte government seems to listen only to itself, in accordance with the president’s position.


To me, it’s not a question of franchise renewal at all. “Franchise” only regulates media companies’ use of limited airwaves. To me, freedom of the
press and expression is at stake, which no franchise actually targets. It’s like completely gagging a media company and making an example of it to
other media outlets to straighten their ranks to avoid death. The press, in addition to reporting facts, is also supposed to express opinions, negative
or positive, about issues being reported on. That is why the media is commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate, the other three referring to the
branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial). The press (or media) is expected to be independent and courageous enough to inform
the people of what’s really going on and how the people would be affected by it.


If we were in a dictatorship, yes, there’s an extreme control of media, because there’s absolutely no freedom of expression allowed. But in a
democracy, we are mocking ourselves if we allow gagging and controlling what we say or print. I firmly believe that freedom of the press is the best
form of nonviolent expression of a people’s disgust over issues that affect them and over people in high places who use power and influence to step
on citizens’ rights.


Let me quote two prominent Americans whose thoughts on the matter truly hit our intent: Robert Kennedy said, “Hand in hand with freedom of
speech goes the power to be heard, to share in the decisions of government which shape men's lives.”


And according to Benjamin Franklin, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
I fully agree with both of them.