The right forum
On Monday, President Duterte again threatened to block the renewal of the broadcasting franchise of ABS-CBN.
Speaking to earthquake victims in M’lang, Cotabato, Mr. Duterte addressed the network giant: “Mag-renew kayo, ewan ko lang kung may mangyari diyan (You try to renew, let’s see if anything happens),” he said.
Started as a radio broadcasting company in the 1950s by Eugenio Lopez Sr., ABS-CBN was shuttered along with other media outfits during the martial law regime of authoritarian President Ferdinand Marcos in the early 1970s. It resumed commercial operations in September 1986, several months after the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution ousted the Marcoses, and was given a 25-year franchise to operate as a broadcast company in 1995.
That franchise expires three months from now, on March 30, 2020. Several bills have been filed for its renewal, but none of them have been tabled for discussion on the floor. Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano has echoed Mr. Duterte’s displeasure at ABS-CBN, accusing the network of alleged partiality in its coverage of the 2016 elections where he ran in tandem with the President. And while Congress has the prerogative to approve the franchise renewal of any media outfit, the consolidated bill passed by both the House and the Senate still needs the President’s signature to become final and executory.
Already, Mr. Duterte has categorically and repeatedly stated his stand, starting from as far back as April 2017, when he accused ABS-CBN of estafa for supposedly not providing him the airtime for political ads that he said had already been paid for. In November 2018, during the distribution of certificates of land ownership in Malay, Aklan, he again called the ABS-CBN owners “thieves and estafador (swindlers)” and threatened to cancel the network’s franchise. Then, earlier this month, Mr. Duterte repeated his threat: “I will see to it that you’re out,” he said in a speech delivered in Malacañang on Dec. 3.
His latest tirade this week seems to up the ante, however. Aside from the threat of blocking its franchise renewal, the President advised the network to just sell the company: “Kung ako sa inyo ipagbili niyo na ‘yan (If I were you, I would sell that),” he said.
The suggestion raised speculations on the real reason behind Mr. Duterte’s repeated threat: Does the President have a buyer in mind, with the threats meant to pressure owners of the network giant to yield the company to an interested party presumably in the good graces of the administration?
There’s an easy and logical way to tame such notions, while making the network accountable for the alleged lapses that have provoked the President’s wrath: file a case in court, as several lawmakers have suggested.
Filed in a public forum such as the courts with their established protocol for weighing evidence and proof of malfeasance, the charges could prove the legitimacy of Mr. Duterte’s grievances against the media giant. The charge could be fraud, estafa (swindling) or even libel, if indeed the network had maligned the President by airing an opponent’s late-breaking ad questioning his character.
Did ABS-CBN receive the advertising revenue and reneged on its obligation to its client? Surely there is a contract that covers such transaction, as well as sanctions for the party that breached it, just as there would be official receipts for the payment of the huge amount involved in paid airtime for political ads.
Showing both documents would redeem the aggrieved party not just in the legal forum, but also before the court of public opinion where, unfairly or not, the President’s actions have been described as an assault on the freedom of the press. As many quarters have warned, such threats would have a chilling effect on other media outlets that may henceforth feel the need to scale down their scrutiny of the administration for fear of being similarly subjected to public attacks. The threat of shuttering the network would also put in peril the jobs of the network’s over 10,000 employees.
Aside from the courts, there’s Congress that can speed up the schedule of public hearings on the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise. Surely, the House can easily convene its blue ribbon committee to shed light on an issue that involves public trust and the fate of the country’s largest media company.
A public forum such as the courts or congressional hearings might finally lay to rest this issue. But Mr. Duterte has filed no case and Congress has not scheduled any hearing, while the clock ticks inexorably to a day with disturbing, far-reaching implications for the state of media freedom in the country.
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