Press freedom and ABS-CBN

TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag (The Freeman) - January 31, 2020 - 12:00am

The fate of the press and press freedom in the Philippines are not tied to the fate of network giant ABS-CBN, whose franchise, set to expire very soon, the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened not to renew. The press and press freedom in the Philippines do not rise or fall with the fortunes of ABS-CBN.

In short, the press is not ABS -CBN and ABS-CBN is not the press. But like ABS-CBN, whose life is subject to franchise limitations, press freedom, like everything else, is not absolute. ABS-CBN cannot answer the Duterte government with a fallacious case like press freedom being under attack because it is not. Besides, what freedom is there that needs to submit to political approval by Congress the right to be exercised by way of franchise?

Subjecting the operations of media to the scrutiny, approval, and limitations set by Congress is part of the overall checks and balances under which democracies thrive and where even the press is not exempt. The idea of an unbridled exercise of press freedom is just a romanticized notion of those insecure in the practice of the journalism profession. That nobody else feels threatened proves the problem is about franchise, not press freedom.

Journalists need to exercise their profession with responsibility. They must know their limits and know exactly where not to go. They must not throw their weight around. They must know it is neither their press card nor their press affiliation that gives them strength but the responsibility by which they exercise their craft. This is the only measure by which credibility and therefore strength is earned, not the scope of reach nor immensity of assets.

The failure of ABS-CBN to renew its government franchise (I emphasize government franchise to highlight press freedom's limitations, that it is not some inherent right every person is born with to exercise with limitless abandon) will not curtail, cripple or impair the exercise of the press freedom in the Philippines. That will only happen if Duterte padlocks the entire press as an institution in this country.

Without ABS-CBN, there will still be plenty of others to keep the fires of press freedom burning, and who knows but perhaps with even greater responsibility, professionalism, and sense of propriety. Sometimes we do need to take a bath to smell good instead of just putting on perfume. The shutdown of ABS-CBN only looks bad and scary if you focus on just two words it endlessly highlights --press and closure.

I do not know the real score between ABS-CBN and Duterte and do not intend to go there. What rankles me is the unabashed attempt by the network to pass off its troubles as an assault on press freedom. That is a lie it is peddling. That the only ones buying are the usual critics of Duterte is very damning.

One thing the press sometimes forgets is that it only mirrors society. It cannot alter the reflections caught within its frames, not even when it has gotten so big and powerful it is tempted to think it is right all the time, that it can never go wrong. Well, ABS-CBN is grossly mistaken if it equates its franchise woes with press freedom. Yet, on the other hand, it can also be right on the money. Press freedom could just be a matter of franchise.

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