President Duterte wanted the head of broadcast media giant ABS-CBN. The House of Representatives delivered it to him on Friday, 10 weeks after its 25-year legislative franchise expired on May 4.
On a harried Covid-19 day when deliveries move rather slowly, that was quite fast considering the political clout and resources of the Lopez family that owns and operates the 66-year-old broadcast behemoth based in Diliman, Quezon City.
Government agencies had been dragging around the wounded network before the kill. Since its life hanged on a legislative franchise, the coup de grâce was dealt by the House of Representatives where the process of granting and renewing franchises begins.
In a vote of 70-11 (plus two inhibiting and one abstaining), the House joint committees processing the network’s application for a renewal of franchise agreed with the recommendation of its technical working group to kill the renewal bid.
The rejection at committee level was widely expected, yet it still raised a howl from the workers and supporters of the “Kapamilya” network here and abroad, as well as from focus groups deploring the “big blow” to press freedom.
In many respected opinion circles, the Duterte administration has been criticized for its assaults on the press, as well as its harassing media to scale down critical scrutiny of official conduct and to play blind to bad government.
Friends have asked us if Duterte’s harsh treatment of media is indeed scary. Yes, it often is, even to veteran newspapermen. But the press has to abide its job as watchdog, and not take the easier (and probably more rewarding) option of sleeping as lapdog of the oppressor.
When Duterte came up with “Oplan Tokhang,” he said that if we were not drug addicts there was no reason to be afraid. Recently he served us the Anti-Terrorism Act and tried lulling us with the by now familiar line that if we’re not terrorists we should just close our eyes and swallow it.
The tightening noose of repressive measures, some of them riding on the Covid-19 scare and being enforced by his (“my”) over-zealous police, has heightened our misgivings. When will this end?
The switching off of ABS-CBN at 7:52 p.m. on May 5 has left thousands of media workers groping in the darkness of the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly they are having problems with amortization, rent, utilities, medical care, and the daily upkeep of their families.
Some victims want the Lopez family to hit back – without suggesting how. Others opine that the ABS-CBN owners can wait for the opportune time to regain their franchise in 2022 at the end of Duterte’s term. They are assuming he will step down in 2022!
As we see it, waiting for 2022 is not an option for the Lopezes. The moment Duterte gives to another party the frequency he has taken away, that spot in the broadcast spectrum will no longer be available to the Lopezes or their successors.
If the Lopezes have fallback plans in a cul-de-sac scenario such as this, we think they must move quickly now, not later, while the ardor of the support for them is still warm.
Duterte actually warned of the fate awaiting ABS-CBN. On Dec. 4, 2019, while lashing out at what he said were oligarchs shortchanging captive consumers – two of them operating water service concessions in Metro Manila – he told the Lopezes straight:
“Your (ABS-CBN) franchise will end next year. If you are expecting that it will be renewed, I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out!” He did not mind encroaching on legislative territory, knowing that dummies do not complain.
It was the first and not the only time that the President warned he would make sure the network’s franchise would not be renewed. Its license was to expire on March 30, 2020, but its validity was extended to May 4 for technical reasons. Actual switch-off was May 5.
Several times, Duterte had gone out of his way to lambast the network for, according to him, its having unfairly treated him during the 2016 presidential campaign, including its failure to air some of his TV ads.
On Dec. 30, 2019, after again threatening to close ABS-CBN, Duterte advised the Lopez family to just sell the network. In a speech before earthquake victims in M’lang, North Cotabato, he said:
“Itong ABS, mag-expire ang contract ninyo. Mag-renew kayo, ewan ko lang kung may mangyari diyan. Kung ako sa inyo ipagbili niyo na ‘yan. (Your contract is about to expire. I don’t know if it’ll be renewed. If I were you, I’d sell the company.)
“Kasi ang mga Pilipino ngayon lang makaganti sa inyong kalokohan. (This is the only chance of Filipinos to get even with you.) And I will make sure that you will remember this episode of our times forever.”
Those remarks raised speculation that he wanted some cronies to buy control of blue-chip ABS-CBN. There were reports then that Udenna Communications Media and Entertainment Holdings Corp of his Davao-based friend Dennis Uy was planning to go big on media and entertainment.
Uy has dismissed that possibility: “I have high respect for what ABS-CBN has done and what it continues to do. I completely recognize what it represents for our fellow Filipinos… We are hoping that their issues be resolved soonest.”
Summing up the last 12 committee hearings on the franchise, Rep. Carlos Zarate (Bayan Muna Party-list) said no cases had been proven against the broadcast giant. He reiterated statements from:
*The Department of Justice and the Bureau of Immigration that ABS-CBN chairman emeritus Gabby Lopez is a Filipino despite his holding Fil-Am dual-citizenship.
*The Securities and Exchange Commission that the issuance of Philippine Depositary Receipts does not indicate transfer of ownership to foreigners who are banned from management roles in media.
*The Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority that ABS-CBN pays its due taxes and has no tax evasion cases.
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