Sen. Grace Poe
ELCO ‘DORMANT FOR THE LONGEST TIME’
Sen. Grace Poe on Monday slammed the House of Representatives for its double standard in pulling the plug on ABS-CBN while allowing a “dormant” local telco to transfer its franchise to a Chinese-backed consortium despite infringements on its original legislative license.
Poe, Senate public services committee chair, said lawmakers had allowed China Telecom, Udenna Corp. and Chelsea Logistics Holdings Corp. to acquire Mindanao Islamic Telephone Co. Inc. (Mislatel) last year in response to mounting calls to break the duopoly of PLDT Inc. and Globe Telecom in the country’s telco industry.
Udenna and Chelsea are owned by Davao businessman Dennis Uy, a close friend of President Duterte and one of his major contributors during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Poe said that while the House legislative franchises committee shuttered ABS-CBN despite its being compliant with pertinent laws, it let Mislatel consortium—now Dito Telecommunity Corp.—operate even after it failed to go on air within a year after securing its congressional franchise in 1998.
“Mislatel was given a chance despite several violations of its franchise,” she said in a television interview. “When it acquired that franchise, part of the franchise agreement states that you should be operational for a certain period. Mislatel was dormant for the longest time and yet Congress looked past that and granted them the franchise.”
In a Viber message to reporters, Poe said legislators gave Mislatel much leeway and “full assistance … including allowing the transfer of its controlling interest to an entity with substantial foreign shareholdings.”
“This is far from ABS-CBN’s case, which was ordered to shut down even before its violations were duly discussed and even after the company sufficiently answered all allegations [against them] on the committee floor,” she said.
Poe countered the view of presidential spokesperson Harry Roque that what happened to ABS-CBN had no chilling effect on the media. “I would say that it’s foreboding and for many, this would be seen as a warning,” she said.
In his press briefing on Monday, Roque said in part, “Whether we agree with it or not, it went through the process and that was the committee’s decision. Everyone must respect it.”
“The boxing is over. … We can’t do anything about it. Let’s move on,” he said.
Right of reply
Sought for comment on this issue, University of the Philippines journalism professor Danilo Arao lamented the “skewed understanding” of journalism among some lawmakers in the House panel, and warned against accommodating them beyond the duty of journalism.
In the course of the hearing, ABS-CBN president and CEO Carlo Katigbak had said, “I would like to make a public commitment: Any public official will be given a chance to air their side.”
“This is a commitment by the owners and the managers of ABS-CBN,” Katigbak said in his testimony before the committee on July 6.
Arao said he was uncomfortable with that commitment as it resembled a right of reply.
The Philippines has no right-of-reply law, which requires news organizations to give equal space or airtime to all parties in their coverage. Lawmakers have time and again attempted to pass such a bill to the objections of media groups, which consider it an unconstitutional restraint on press freedom.
“They were talking about balance in the context of equal space or airtime, under the right-of-reply bill, which was opposed by journalists and news organizations,” Arao said in a phone interview on Saturday.
“So we’re treading on very dangerous ground here because we might see a barrage of House bills in the near future talking about the need to control media,” he said.
Journalists’ joint statement
On Monday, more than 930 journalists from various media organizations across the country crossed competition lines to express solidarity with their colleagues at ABS-CBN, in a joint statement released on social media.
“In denying the network of a franchise, the 70 lawmakers clearly want to treat the press as a propaganda machine that will serve their political interests, embellish their image and parrot their spin,” the statement read.
The signatories said the only “historic” deed that Congress was able to accomplish was to make the chamber a “pawn for carrying out a personal vendetta.”
In its statement on Sunday, the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) said “the ABS-CBN controversy would not have evolved into a press freedom issue if there was no repeated public threat to close down the network from the highest official of the land, which firmed up suspicion about the long legislative inaction and, later, intensive scrutiny of the network’s alleged violations.”
On the other hand, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said in a Facebook post on Monday that “It wasn’t the government who shut ABS-CBN down; rather it was their owners’ playing fast and loose with our laws in the past decades that made the shutdown inevitable.”
“We simply put an end to the privilege of one family in using a public resource to protect and promote their private interests,” he said.
“As to the oligarchs, like the owners of ABS-CBN, whose historical institutional DNA is programmed to protect and grow their fortunes by controlling and abusing the system, they also deprive the country of billions in much needed funds by skirting and bending the law,” Cayetano said.
“Yes, their methods for avoiding taxes in the billions of pesos may appear ‘legal,’ but how can you argue that putting that much money in the pockets of one family, instead of having it benefit the millions of Filipinos who desperately need it, is in any way right or moral?”
“The fact that GMA paid P3.13 billion in taxes from 2017 to 2019, as compared to ABS-CBN’s P563 million for the same period, makes it crystal clear that something has gone terribly wrong with the system,” he said.
“This despite ABS-CBN being a bigger company that usually has bigger annual income than GMA.”
“So [it] is my conviction that private interests should be kept at the same arms-length distance as government from controlling the media,” the top House leader said. —WITH REPORTS FROM MARLON RAMOS, DJ YAP, ADOR VINCENT MAYOL, NESTOR P. BURGOS JR., JHESSET O. ENANO AND JULIE M. AURELIO INQ
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