FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - July 14, 2020 - 12:00am

There is a reason why, under our system of laws, the House of Representatives enjoys the exclusive power to grant a private franchise: the oligarchy.

There are other ways of granting a franchise or a license. One might be by way of a technical commission such as the National Telecommunications Commission is or the Department of Information and Communications Technology could be. In which case, the decision will be premised on feasibility and efficiency.

A second way is to auction off available frequencies. This method will ensure the Republic gets ample compensation for the use of scarce sovereign resources. It will encourage optimal use of those resources – hopefully, in the public interest.

But we are commanded by our laws to recognize the exclusive jurisdiction by House of Representatives, on the presumption that as duly elected representatives of the people they will decide in the national interest. Of course, in this set-up, every franchise question becomes a political one – or, worse, one of pecuniary interest. It is no mystery that the franchise committee is consistently one of the largest in the House.

During its heyday, the oligarchy was most comfortable with politicians awarding franchises. The oligarchs were supremely confident they would have the means to dictate outcomes in a necessarily politicized process.

But the world has changed. The overarching reason the ABS-CBN franchise application was denied by the House franchise committee was that the media giant was used as an instrument serving an oligarchic family’s business empire. Granting it another franchise would be contrary to the nation’s best interest.

Frankie Sionil Jose bravely made that point months ago in this same editorial page. His own friends in the “woke” community ganged up on him for saying what he said.

The giant network erred in the approach it chose to win a franchise. They cavalierly relied on the network’s ability to sway public opinion to bully the legislators, thinking this would win the day. They deployed their stars to win public sympathy, underscored the job losses that will happen if they do not get their franchise and tried to portray the franchise debate as a matter of defending the freedom of the press.

When they allied with the leftist groups in the effort to win the franchise, this merely aggravated a propaganda-driven approach to the matter at hand. The leftist groups transform every issue into an opportunity to conduct agitprop. The streets are their theater.

But the grant of a franchise is a more complex political matter. It requires navigating the power blocs and powerbrokers playing key roles in defining the outcome. It requires cutting deals and sealing commitments. None was done.

Instead, the network played up the jobs angle, a non sequitur to begin with. If we want to save jobs at any cost, we should allow illegal drug syndicates and gambling lords to continue doing their thing.  Statesmanship dictates that the final public good overrides petty concerns.

Casting the franchise question as a press freedom issue might have a little more bite as a propaganda line even as it relies on peddling an unfounded conspiracy theory. It makes it politically costlier for the sitting President to allow a noisy broadcast operator to lose its bid for a franchise so that it may continue its cultural hegemony.

The press freedom spin might attract the coterie of rights advocates, but it does not work as a strategy to win a franchise if the President they intend to bully has more than enough political capital to be intimidated by the minor political costs involved here.

The Palace had only to declare neutrality in this political process and wash its hands of any responsibility for the outcome. All the publicly available evidence does suggest the House had all the autonomy to decide on this matter.

In the aftermath of the rejection, bitter partisans threatened those who voted against the application with some sort of vengeance at the ballot box. They questioned the fairness of the legislators who justified their vote on the basis of the larger public interest. Considering the recent electoral performance of those most vociferous in making threats of retaliation at the ballot box, it is easy to understand why the congressmen appear unfazed.

The threats being made by the losers in this case recalls the effort by Maria Ressa and her cohorts at Rappler to smear the judge who found her guilty of libel. Most lawyers agree that given the evidence submitted, the judge did issue a correct decision. So serious was the bullying of the judge that the association of court judges issued a rare statement condemning the smear campaign as a form of intimidation of the judicial system.

The House decision on the ABS-CBN application is a done deal. The chamber enjoys exclusive jurisdiction in the issuance of franchises.

Even if a congressman who voted with the majority chooses to change his vote to force a second round of voting, the majority is so overwhelming that the same outcome might be expected. That sort of maneuver to win reconsideration of the case is futile.

A wild idea has been advanced to launch a people’s initiative on the matter of the ABS-CBN franchise, buoyed perhaps by the results of the SWS survey showing public opinion favorable to the broadcast giant. This idea is legally tenuous and will cost taxpayers at least P4 billion and years to execute.

The only question on the table now, after the legislators have voted, is what happens to the bandwidth space freed up by the rejection.

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