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PerryScope: Death of free press

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By Perry Diaz

On May 5, 2020, the Philippines’ premier broadcast network shut down under the orders of the government.  The shutdown of the free TV and radio network sent shudders throughout the country, as it was the country’s number one source of news.

In an announcement, the network management said, “This is in compliance with the cease and desist order issued by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) today that prohibits ABS-CBN from continuing its broadcast operations effective immediately.”

With more than 11,000 employees, ABS-CBN has been operating as a 25-year congressional franchise.  It has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs that has been accused of silencing media, particularly because of his anti-drug crackdown.  The friction began in 2016 when Duterte accused them of not running his campaign ads.

Founded in 1946 by American electronics engineer James Lindenberg as Bolinao Electronics Corporation (BEC), it was renamed Alto Broadcasting System (ABS) after it was purchased by Judge Antonio Quirino, brother of then President Elpidio Quirino.  In 1956, newspaper mogul Eugenio Lopez Sr. founded the Chronicle Broadcasting Network (CBN) with his brother, then-vice president Fernando Lopez.  ABS and CBN merged in 1967 and incorporated to form ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation.  It was renamed ABS-CBN Corporation in 2010 to reflect the company’s diversification into Sports network, regional radio networks, motion picture company, and various entertainment and music companies.

Over the years, ABS-CBN has grown into a humongous business conglomerate that affects many facets of Philippine life and culture.  It has become the beacon of information as it reaches out to every household with television and radio, including overseas Filipinos.

Shades of martial law

The shutdown reminds us of the martial law era when the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law.  In the midnight of September 22, 1972, ABS-CBN and its affiliate stations were seized.  Geny Lopez, the president of the company, was imprisoned and held without trial for five years until he and his cellmate

Sergio Osmeña III launched a daring jailbreak in 1977 and sought asylum in the U.S. together with their families.

Shutting down the press is oftentimes a precursor to something more drastic.  It could lead to civil unrest just like the First Quarter Storm (FQS) from January 26 to March 17, 1970 when students demonstrated, protested, and marched against the administration of Marcos. Thus began a sequence of events.  In August 1971, the writ of habeas corpus was suspended in the wake of the Plaza Miranda bombing.  Then the declaration of martial law followed in September 1972.  In 1983, Ninoy Aquino was assassinated and eventually the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution toppled the Marcos dictatorship.

While I am not saying that the current situation is not dire enough to provoke civil unrest, it could, however, be used by the communists to foment friction between the government and the people, who are now suffering from the lockdown forced upon them by the coronavirus pandemic.  Hunger is spreading like wildfire and has begun to take its toll.

Faced with double pandemic – virus and hunger – and with news blackout, Filipinos are caught in the dark recesses of uncertainty and gloom, nowhere to go.  To deprive them of news – any news – good or bad, would lead them to frustration and prone to violence, which to many would be the last resort, which begs the question:  Why deprive the people of vital information they need to know at a time when the unseen enemy is lurking around?

Who’s to blame?

Is this something that could have been avoided?  Yes!  It could have been avoided had the NTC not move to stop ABS-CBN from broadcasting.  All it had to do was wait for Congress to act on the network’s pending franchise application.  The current 25-year franchise expired on May 4, 2020.

As to why Congress failed to renew the franchise is a fool’s question.  Congress had more than two years to pass the franchise.  They could have done it in a day.  Dirty politics – and possibly money — and played a part in the delay.  But let’s not cry over spilled milk.  The expiration date has passed.  But that doesn’t mean that the NTC couldn’t issue a temporary authorization until Congress acted.  It must be noted that Congress had earlier asked NTC to issue provisional authority to ABS-CBN while the House of Representatives was working on the renewal of its franchise, which happens quite often.  It’s not unprecedented.

But Solicitor General Jose Calida said, “there is no law giving it the power to do so.”  To which Sen. Sonny Angara responded that he and “the majority of Congress” did not believe the provisional permit was illegal because “it has been done in the past and it has not been invalidated.”

It’s interesting to note that Calida had earlier lodged a quo warranto challenge in the Supreme Court that sought to nullify ABS-CBN’s franchise due to alleged abuses like illegal pay-per-view offering and foreign ownership.  But ABS-CBN denied that it had violated the law in its 65-year service.

It was also revealed that Calida himself had warned the NTC against issuing provisional authority for ABS-CBN to operate when its franchise lapsed and threatened prosecution for graft against commissioners who would grant such authority.

Here’s another fool’s question: Who’s to blame?  Oh, didn’t he blame Congress for the network’s shutdown?  But didn’t the Senate pass a resolution while the House Franchise Committee sent a letter to the NTC authorizing it to issue provisional authority to ABS-CBN while the network’s franchise renewal bill was being deliberated in Congress?

On May 3, before the franchise lapsed the following day, Calida warned against this move.  Invoking the OSG’s role as counsel of NTC led Sen. Franklin Drilon to note, “there is a conflict of interest there when the lawyer threatens to sue its client,” which makes one wonder: What has Calida to gain by making waves?

Eventually, the NTC decided on May 5 to issue a cease and desist order instead, to which Calida hailed it as a “triumph of the rule of law.”  However, in my opinion, NTC shouldn’t have issued a cease and desist order.  The commissioners should have let it play out. I doubt if Calida would have sued NTC.  He loves to threaten.  Yes, he barks a lot and loud just like a Chihuahua. That’s his trademark.

What happened is typical of moro-moro mentality in the government.  Each actor plays a part until everybody has played its part.  In the end, all the actors go out on stage and take a bow.  And the audience claps and whistles.

And while the law triumphed in the mock moro-moro show, free press died. For feedback, PerryDiaz@gmail.com

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