What will happen to ABS-CBN?

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - December 9, 2019 - 12:00am

Curtains close. Kisses end. The music stops. 

In the case of ABS-CBN, it’s all these and more, if President Duterte has his way.

Will the broadcast giant shut down? Will the klieg lights disappear? Will the celebrities lose their lustre? Will we have nothing but dead air on ABS-CBN’s broadcast channels?

In Duterte’s Philippines, you never really know what’s going to happen or who will be at the receiving end of his anti-oligarch rant or outburst.

For now, what is clear is that he wants ABS-CBN out.

“I will see to it that you’re out,” says an angry Duterte, claiming that the Lopez-owned network did not air his political ads in 2016.

Sure, ABS-CBN isn’t perfect. One can’t count the times it aired nonsense over more important social issues or when it spent crucial primetime slots for soap operas that did nothing to educate or elevate the consciousness of Filipinos.

But imperfect as it is, ABS-CBN’s role as a watchdog in our society cannot be ignored.

Through different administrations, the media giant, together with other news outfits, has played an important role in guarding our democracy. 

I therefore strongly believe that no broadcaster or media entity should have to go through what ABS-CBN is supposedly going through now.

Congressional approval

This brings us to the root cause of the issue then – congressional approval for a franchise.

Why should a media outfit’s continued operation need the approval of people in Congress, especially now when Congress is dominated by Malacanang’s allies?

Under Philippine laws, commercial broadcasting corporations have to secure a legislative franchise to be able to operate. 

Such franchise is granted in the form of a law and enacted in the same way as other laws in the Philippines – through Congress and if approved, it goes to the President for final approval.

According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, in the US, applications for the operation of  broadcast stations is relatively easier because only the independent Federal Communications Commission is responsible for granting operation permits and renewing licenses. 

In contrast, broadcasting companies in the Philippines need to go through Congress for their franchise to operate.

But what if, as in the case of ABS-CBN, the President does not want Congress to grant the media giant the franchise to operate?

Will Congress act independently or will it be just a rubber stamp Congress?

It is time to revisit this provision in our Constitution because it is prone to abuse. 

Why, I wonder, should the right to a free press be left in the hands of lawmakers who react adversely to critical media coverage?

Indeed, a media entity must be free to operate and should not be at the mercy of an administration that does not welcome critical or independent reporting.

Let us not forget that the press is important in a democracy, especially in this age of fake news and disinformation.

A lot can still happen between now and March 2020. 

The weather may still change and ABS-CBN may still have the last laugh.

But in the end, if ABS-CBN really loses its franchise, things will change for the media giant but only for a while.

I am sure the Lopez Group, always a formidable force, will not allow a repeat of 1972 when the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos ordered the shutdown of ABS-CBN and other media entities.

ABS-CBN will find ways to stay alive and relevant.

It is, therefore, wrong for any administration, here or abroad, to think that it can silence the press especially in this age of internet and smart phones.

One must remember, for instance, that the Hong Kong protests spread fast because of social media.

ABS-CBN may disappear from the airwaves,  but it will certainly not cower in fear and fade in oblivion.

And this is what the different administrations – one after another – keep on forgetting:

That the press in this chaotic republic will continue to hold the line.  

And difficult as it is, the men and women in the newsrooms and in the beat will keep the flames of journalism in this country alive and burning – fierce, strong and intense. 

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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