Duterte's ace against ABS-CBN, the Philippines' biggest network

President Rodrigo Duterte's plan to block ABS-CBN's franchise is a threat to press freedom, experts tell Rappler

Paterno Esmaquel II

12:52:21am August 18, 2017

10:26:38am January 28, 2018

ROCKY RELATIONSHIP. President Rodrigo Duterte shares a light moment with Eugenio Lopez III, chairman of ABS-CBN, during a courtesy call in Malacañang'€™s Music Room on October 24, 2016. Malacañang file photo

ROCKY RELATIONSHIP. President Rodrigo Duterte shares a light moment with Eugenio Lopez III, chairman of ABS-CBN, during a courtesy call in Malacañang'€™s Music Room on October 24, 2016. Malacañang file photo

MANILA, Philippines – It was close to midnight. 

On September 22, 1972, soldiers seized and padlocked the broadcast center of ABS-CBN, a leading TV network in the Philippines, upon the orders of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. 

Just a day earlier, Marcos had declared martial law across the Philippines. His first letter of instruction? To close all radio and TV stations in the country. Dictators, after all, abhor a free press.

Months after ABS-CBN was closed, then ABS-CBN president Eugenio Lopez Jr was also arrested on November 27, 1972, for alleged plots to kill Marcos. 

ABS-CBN would reopen only in 1986 after a popular rebellion toppled Marcos and brought to power Corazon Aquino, the widow of slain opposition senator Benigno Aquino Jr.

Rising from the ashes of martial law, ABS-CBN would later become the Philippines' biggest TV network.

So influential is ABS-CBN now that its most popular anchor, Noli de Castro, was even elected Philippine vice president in 2004. Its other personalities, too, have become senators, congressmen, and mayors.

To close ABS-CBN again, therefore, has become unthinkable. Until Mrs Aquino's son, former president Benigno Aquino III, was replaced by a man called "The Punisher", who idolizes, and in fact gave a hero's burial to, Marcos.

Today, more than 4 decades after Marcos declared martial law, President Rodrigo Duterte also wants ABS-CBN closed. 

The difference is that unlike Marcos, Duterte does not need to declare martial law nationwide to stop this TV network.

A former prosecutor who knows the workings of Philippine law, he only needs to wait until 2020, when the franchise of ABS-CBN expires. 

By then, the Philippines' biggest TV network will no longer have the right to air its shows. 

Duterte said he will block the renewal of ABS-CBN's franchise after the network allegedly refused to air his political ads for the 2016 elections. 

Experts told Rappler that Duterte's warning against ABS-CBN is a threat to press freedom. 

This comes as Duterte warns other media outlets, such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer, of "karma" for supposedly writing unfairly about him. (READ: Duterte's target: The Philippine Daily Inquirer

In the backdrop, too, is the rise of state propaganda boosted by trolls and fake news. 

Due to 'scarcity of airwaves'

The requirement to get a franchise for broadcast media is not Duterte's invention. 

Under the Radio Control Act of 1931, the government requires each broadcast station to secure a franchise from Congress. No station can use the airwaves without this document. 

Section 11, Article XII of the 1987 Constitution also states: "Neither shall any such franchise or right be granted except under the condition that it shall be subject to amendment, alteration, or repeal by the Congress when the common good so requires."

The Supreme Court (SC) explained in an April 2009 ruling: "The key basis for regulation is rooted in empiricism that broadcast frequencies are a scarce resource whose use could be regulated and rationalized only by the government."

The SC also said that because of "the scarcity of the airwaves," the government "may impose regulations to see to it that broadcasters promote the public good deemed important by the State, and to withdraw that privilege from those who fall short of the standards set in favor of other worthy applicants."

In the current set-up, each franchise comes in the form of a law, which is passed by Congress and signed by the President.

House Bill 4349 seeks to renew ABS-CBN's franchise, which will expire on March 30, 2020 – a little less than 3 years from now. This bill is pending in Congress, which has a "supermajority" formed by Duterte's allies. 

In a statement in June 2016, ABS-CBN explained that it tried to renew its franchise as early as September 2014 and underwent "the normal legislative process." 

The network, however, withdrew the application "due to time constraints." It chose to seek the renewal in the 17th Congress, under a new president.  

In an interview quoted by the Inquirer in 2016, an anonymous lawmaker said ABS-CBN sought its franchise renewal in 2014 "because it didn't want to risk having to go through the process under an unfriendly administration." 

The Inquirer source said ABS-CBN's application "faced strong opposition from cable operators" back then. The source added that Aquino's allies in the House "felt the criticisms against the President were too personal and offensive and went to the point of nitpicking." 

In contrast, ABS-CBN's closest rival, GMA Network, can now heave a sigh of relief. On April 21, Duterte signed Republic Act 10925 renewing GMA Network's franchise for another 25 years. 

Duterte warns of 'karma'

In an interview with reporters on April 27, Duterte explained that TV networks can get a government franchise "only if" they "adhere" to journalistic standards.

"If you operate ABS-CBN tapos manloloko lang kayo ng tao, mag-swindling kayo, I have to stop you," he said. (If you operate ABS-CBN then you just fool people and commit swindling, I have to stop you.)

In a speech a month later, on May 19, Duterte told ABS-CBN: "Press freedom? Press freedom, kayo 'yung number one magnanakaw, ayaw 'nyo isauli 'yung propriedad, press freedom?

(Press freedom? Press freedom, but you're the number one thieves, and you don't want to return what's ours, then you say press freedom?) 

"How about our freedom? We have our freedom of expression, to express our anger, and that is also my constitutional right. You are bullshit," Duterte said.

"You want to know my sentiments? Fuck you," Duterte added, as he flashed the dirty finger. 

Rappler sought ABS-CBN for comment but has not received a reply as of posting time.

In its statement in June 2016, ABS-CBN said that "claims that the franchise will not be extended are purely speculative."

"For the franchise renewal, we believe that our government will uphold the ideals of democracy, including the rights to freedom of speech and expression," ABS-CBN said. 

Brave words communicated to the network's advertisers, followers, and its public. Internally, it is not difficult to imagine top management feeling anxious and distressed about the thought of losing the network's franchise – its very own lifeblood. 

Threat to press freedom

Experts said that Duterte's warning to ABS-CBN endangers press freedom, a hallmark of democracy as the media is a watchdog of government. 

"Any threat to any media organization is a threat to press freedom," veteran journalist Vergel Santos told Rappler.

"The only reason President Duterte wants ABS-CBN out of business is a whimsical one: it dislikes ABS-CBN journalism. With Congress overwhelmingly, obsequiously pledged to the President, in any case, it is only expected to go along with him," Santos said.

Santos said that "collusion defines the relationship" today between executive and legislative branches of government. 

Santos, former publisher of BusinessWorld, also answered a question on whether Duterte's threat will affect the way ABS-CBN reporters and editors do their jobs.

He said: "In fact, I have observed that the news media, not only ABS-CBN, have, to varying extents, become intimidated by Duterte from the start; indeed, some practitioners have told me that. But I imagine ABS-CBN more intimidated than others."

"The attitude, at any rate, constitutes a surrender of a measure of press freedom and a betrayal, to the same extent, of the public interest. And, with an adversary like Duterte, the situation can only get worse: the more the press is seen by him to be intimidated, the more he tries to intimidate it," Santos said.

Like Santos, journalism professor Danilo Arao said Duterte's warning to block ABS-CBN's franchise is "a threat to press freedom."

On one hand, Arao said ABS-CBN needs to explain what happened to Duterte's political ad.

ABS-CBN, after all, is "far from perfect." For one, it "has its own business interests to protect."

On the other hand, Arao told Rappler, "To cease the operations of a news media organization on the basis of the failure to air a particular advertisement is, I think, a bit too much." 

"I think the punishment doesn't fit the crime," said Arao, who teaches journalism at the University of the Philippines. 

Arao said Duterte's threat to ABS-CBN "is a reflection of Duterte's attitude toward the media, that the media would have to toe the line so that it would not be threatened in any way."

On how ABS-CBN reporters and editors might deal with Duterte's threat, Arao said: "It is possible that some of its gatekeepers would exercise restraint in criticizing the President or some reporters themselves would resort to self-censorship in framing Duterte or his policies."

Arao explained why press freedom matters not only for media practitioners.

"Press freedom is a cornerstone of democracy. You cannot have a functioning democracy if you do not have a vibrant free press," the journalism professor said.

An adversarial press, he said, serves "as a check and balance to the abuses or misuse of power."

Franchising process 'too political'

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) also weighed in on this issue in June 2016.

The CMFR said: "No broadcaster or media entity should have to go through what ABS-CBN is supposedly going through. This then begs the question: Why should a media outfit’s continued operation need congressional approval?"

Santos said he sees "no reason why the media should be subject to franchising at all." 

"Franchising itself constitutes curtailment of press freedom, therefore, in that sense, unconstitutional," Santos said.

He explained that "as the franchising authority, Congress, in the media's case, is assigned a mere function to perform, not any power to wield."

He said Congress acts like "an arranger," whose role "is limited basically to assigning places in a public domain for purposes of keeping order. He said that this is "not unlike directing air traffic in the case of an airport tower."

"If at one time that domain seemed limited, it was only because communications technology had not yet advanced enough to disprove that notion," Santos said.

"But it has since done so, thus rendering franchising anachronistic for the media, a profession and trade whose freedom is singularly and explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution," he added.

Arao, on the other hand, said franchising is needed due to "very, very limited frequencies" and "very, very limited airwaves" available. 

He said the role of franchising, however, should not belong to Congress. "For Congress to be the final arbiter of it, I think, is too political for comfort," Arao said.

"We don't want these media organizations to be at the mercy of the legislative branch of government," he added.

He pointed out that sometimes there's a tendency for the legislative branch to be "the rubber stamp of the executive." The process of issuing franchises, he said, "has become so political."

Arao suggested forming an independent commission for media franchising. 

This commission "would be manned by responsible media practitioners and journalists, and perhaps concerned citizens, who would be the ones to decide on franchise applications."

The CMFR pointed out that in the US, for example, applying to operate a broadcast station "is relatively easier." 

In the US, "only the independent Federal Communications Commission is responsible for granting operation permits and renewing licenses," the CMFR said. "Applications are paperless and accomplished online."

For Arao, franchising should be part of media's "self-regulatory mechanism."

"We have to bring it back to the people and to the media practitioners so that we can strengthen self-regulation this way," he said. – Rappler.com