Politics and mass media
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 13, 2020 - 12:00am

Lobbying with politicians has been a hallmark of applications for broadcasting franchises in our country. What goes into the lobbying is anybody’s guess.

The battle over the renewal of the franchise of the country’s largest network simply highlighted the role that politicians play in the process. ABS-CBN’s franchise also became particularly controversial after President Duterte vowed that it would not be renewed, and even hinted that it could be given to someone else.

In the past, lawmakers seemed to be mindful of the influence they believed mass media wielded in this country, and considered it detrimental to their political future to put at least the major private networks through the congressional wringer.

Today, however, despite Duterte’s avowed acceptance of ABS-CBN’s apology for what he has described as its unfair treatment of him, his House allies have carried out his original threat.

A broadcast franchise is granted, not simply assigned like a frequency. This is one of the arguments being raised by those who say it is a privilege rather than an inherent universal right, like freedom of expression.

When a broadcasting company has extensive news coverage services, however, curtailment or shutdown of its operations then has an impact on journalism and press freedom.

Those who voted to deny ABS-CBN a new franchise cite what they say are the broadcast giant’s violations of the law that granted the 25-year franchise. They insist that this is not a press freedom issue. This argument, however, is weakened by their complaints about what they perceive to be unfair or biased news coverage by the network, especially during elections. One congressman openly groused that ABS-CBN never aired his praise releases about himself.

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Biased, unfair or malicious reporting can earn a journalist and the media company a criminal complaint for libel, slander or the newest crime of defamation, cyber libel. Malice is the critical element, not failure to run PR stories.

It’s easier to draw the line on press freedom in the print medium.

Since The Philippine STAR was launched in 1986, for example, I have had about 35 libel suits filed against me together with the newspaper. I’m currently out on bail for the latest, which I believe went to court only because it’s a politically influenced homecourt decision. The complaints were filed by both public personalities and private individuals, mostly over articles written by others in The STAR.

My newspaper and I have been sued even for advertisements, one of which went to court because it was filed by those who have made it their business to influence the judiciary. A single issue can earn you more than one libel suit; I have at least two, filed during the previous administration, over the Metro Rail Transit 3 corruption scandal.

The STAR was convicted of libeling Corazon Aquino when she was president, over the late Louie Beltran’s column wherein he wrote that she hid under her bed at the height of a coup attempt. (I was not included in this case; I was a reporter at the time.) The conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeals when Aquino was no longer president and Beltran had already passed away.

But so far, none of us in the paper has landed behind bars. Nearly all our other lawsuits have been dismissed, so I believe our libel laws are heavily skewed in favor of journalists and press freedom. Litigation, however, is expensive. Still, I don’t begrudge people their legal avenue for holding us in mass media accountable and seeking redress from licentious journalists – and there are, we have to admit, a number of them in our profession.

In the absence of legal avenues for redress, those who feel aggrieved might resort to extreme, violent measures to settle scores with media practitioners.

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Broadcast media, being covered by a congressional franchise, have more constraints, as stipulated in the law granting the franchise. Some of the conditions actually cover content.

Republic Act 7966, which granted the franchise of ABS-CBN in 1995, for example, expressly prohibits, under a section on “Responsibility to the public,” the use of the franchise for airing “obscene and indecent language, speech, act or scene, or for the dissemination of deliberately false information or willful misrepresentation to the detriment of the public interest, or to incite, encourage, or assist in subversive or treasonable acts.”

Did that prohibition constitute prior restraint on mass media?

The law also required ABS-CBN to practice self-regulation, on pain of franchise cancellation, and cut off the telecast of any show or material “if the tendency thereof is to propose and/or incite treason, rebellion or sedition; or the language used therein or the theme thereof is indecent or immoral.”

RA 7966 also required ABS-CBN to provide “at all times sound and balanced programming.” Is this where equal PR opportunity came in?

Those who shot down the franchise renewal also accused ABS-CBN of engaging in usufruct when its 1995 franchise expired, which they said violated RA 7966.

Even the argument between a right and a privilege to operate is touched on by RA 7966. It states that in accepting the franchise, the network “shall exercise the privileges granted under this Act.” The franchise may be amended, altered or repealed by Congress “when the public interest so requires and shall not be interpreted as an exclusive grant of the privileges herein provided for.”

What the franchise did not require was fair or impartial reporting especially during election campaigns, or equal time for the praise releases of every member of the House of Representatives. In the United States, media organizations openly endorse or oppose candidates particularly for the presidency.

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Congress derives from the Constitution its power to grant broadcast franchises, so it will need a Charter amendment if we want politicians to keep their hands off the broadcast networks.

In lieu of Charter change, the politicians can delegate this power to a government agency with expertise on the sector. This is the case in the US, where the Federal Communications Commission regulates radio, TV, wire, satellite and cable services.

I’ve asked even congressmen who support ABS-CBN, however, if they are willing to delegate this power to an independent body. I have yet to hear anyone say yes.

And so critics of the franchise rejection have one recourse left, which is presidential spokesman Harry Roque’s advice: if you don’t like what the congressmen did, vote them out of office.

Toss in their party lists, their relatives and allies. If franchise renewal is a political exercise, supporters of ABS-CBN can also take the political route for redress.

Let’s hope people have a long memory, and this rankles all the way to the 2022 elections.

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