ABS-CBN's content picked apart as lawmakers air grievances

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
ABS-CBN's content picked apart as lawmakers air grievances
File photo shows employees and supporters lighting candles at the gate as the ABS-CBN Corporation office in Quezon City shines the network's colors.
The STAR / Miguel de Guzman

MANILA, Philippines —  In the latest hearing on the franchise of ABS-CBN Corp. on Monday, members of the House of Representatives on Monday aired grievances against the broadcaster'scontent.

The twelfth joint hearing by the House committees on legislative franchises and on good government and public accountability saw the broadcast giant—which the president once vowed would not see a franchise renewal—picked apart for a litany of supposed missteps it made in its reportage over the years.

Nearly all aspects of its newsroom operatons were under the spotlight at Monday afternoon’s hearing, from the airtime it gave to supposedly unqualified resource persons to alleged political biases in its reportage. 

Among these were its coverage of the 2016 elections  and what Rep. Janette Garin (Iloilo, 1st District) called “irresponsible reporting” on former health spokesperson Dr. Lyndon Lee Suy at the height of the Dengvaxia controversy. 

Lee Suy, who passed away in 2019, “died defending himself being very bitter,” she said. 

"ABS-CBN should have been a responsible network...responsibility to the public [says that] you should conform to the ethics of honest enterprise; you should not disseminate false information and willful misrepresentation to the detriment of public interest," she said, quoting the network's now-expired franchise.

"Public health misinformation is worse than COVID-19...You cannot say your heart is for the people if you cannot let our lowly brothers and sisters speak up and be heard," she added.

"Responsible journalism is cloaked with the desire to be on top."

Rep. Abraham Tolentino (Cavite 8th District), meanwhile, accused the network of bias, saying he and his brother, Sen. Francis Tolentino, had been criticized on air and were not given a chance to defend themselves.

His brother, a former Metro Manila Development Authority chairman, has filed a libel case against ABS-CBN broadcaster Ted Failon for a report on an allegedly questionable purchase of motorcycles in 2014.

According to a Manila Standard report on the libel suit, Tolentino "was able to prove that purchasing second-hand units is allowed by law and that he used his personal funds to make the emergency purchase on behalf of the MMDA owing to the visit of Pope Francis to Manila at the time."

‘Morality issue’

For his part, Minority Floor Leader Benny Abante (Manila 6th District), who is a pastor, pointed to supposedly inappropriate content on ABS-CBN's TV shows.

He said that these and other similar scenes aired over the network “offended the sensibilities” of Filipinos and implied that these did not adhere to “standard contemporary Filipino values” under Presidential Decree No. 1986, which created the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board. Among the scenes he held issues with were those of "torrid lips to lips kissing", "'yung mga may patong pa," and "titillating sexy scenes."

“It’s not about politics, it’s about law. My decision will not be based on personalities or on politics but must be based on law. What I will be saying today, asking questions, are realities that we cannot avoid. And we cannot get out of,” he said. 

“I would like to ask ABS-CBN, do you have a morality issue? Have you forsaken values in favor of the ratings? What is the social relevance of all this? What are the redeeming social values? It is objectionable.”

ABS-CBN COO Cory Vidanes responded: “We comply with all the MTRCB program classifications that are recommended. If there are any unresolved issues, we present our position to the adjudication committee ng MTRCB.”

“We tell stories that teach life lessons that embody Filipino values like hard work, respect, resilience, and love for family, the Filipino, and God. Moving forward, we will continue to be responsible content producers,” she added. 

He went as far as quoting an opinion column published on The Freeman entitled, The social irrelevance of noontime TV shows and telenovelas, which accused mainstream media of "poisoning" the minds of the youth.

“This is not just ABS-CBN,” he admitted. 

Earlier Monday, the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches said it was "praying for compassion and entreating" lawmakers to "decide virtuously for the good of our country and the suffering families affected by the issue."

‘Journalism a public service’

Nowhere in Republic Act No. 7966, the company's former franchise, are the words “bias” and “morality” mentioned as hard standards to which the company should adhere.

Not even “journalism” is mentioned.  

ABS-CBN News head Ging Reyes at the hearing said that the company's journalists often sought “to keep biases in check and to report on newsworthy events, persons, and issues in an accurate, fair, and balanced manner," saying that truth-telling and public service is the goal of every journalist.

“Every reporter, writer, producer, anchor, every editor, in the newsroom knows that what we do is not just a job. It is a response to a call to tell the truth and work for a cause greater than ourselves,” she said in her opening statement.

“The shutdown has deprived more than 69 million Filipinos of the kind of information analysis and commentary and public service provided by ABS-CBN News. It has cut off our reach such that two out of three viewers are unable to watch our news programs,” she added.

Whether or not “unbiased reporting” even exists is still up for debate among academics and media and communication practitioners. 

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said: “All politicians will say you are biased if you talk about them unflatteringly. But that's not the issue right now - the issue is whether the media will use public airwaves to choose which candidate will support or target for certain objectives."

Former ABS-CBN News anchor and reporter Kata Inocencio, who was with the company for 15 years, said: “We have never been instructed to play favorites, nor to slant stories in favor or against anyone, nor to play partisan politics. We exercise our duty as broadcast journalist based on the ethical standards and responsibilities expected of a professional journalist who is sworn to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, to remain impartial, to air both and all sides as much as possible and as available, and to be fair and balanced in our reporting."

Press freedom

In an interview before an earlier Senate probe on the company’s franchise practically cleared it of most of the allegations held against it, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said: "Certainly, editorial content is not a ground for canceling the franchise, because that smacks of violation of the freedom of the press and it can be even viewed as a prior restraint which is violative of the freedom of speech.”

READ: ABS-CBN abides by tax, labor and corporate laws — gov't | Does ABS-CBN have tax deficiencies, unpaid debts?

Since the onset of his administration, President Rodrigo Duterte has made it clear that he an ax to grind with critical media and has hit ABS-CBN, as well as Rappler and the Inquirer, in his speeches and addresses.

Rep. Diana Bautista (Dumper party-list) in her manifestation called for “sobriety” from the public, saying: “We have seen a barrage of opinions from the general public, [and] while we respect their opinions, some have sought to characterize these proceedings as a show of force against ABS-CBN by certain individuals instead of as an exercise of our legislative functions.”

“This is not a show but an exercise of our democratic process. The House of Representatives is exercising its constitutional duty [to determine] a privilege that we are duty-bound to protect from abuse,” she added. 

Media watchdog organization Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), which was represented at the hearing Monday, in a statement released in June 2016 said that Duterte's moves against the network were signs of "congressional franchises [being used] as a weapon to control a free press."

"For a press used to politicians and their temperament, this is all par for the course. But what if a large and influential network – like ABS-CBN – owes its very existence to the government or, to be more specific, the now Duterte-controlled Congress?"

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