ABS-CBN closure, an attack on free press

With a vote of 70-11, the Congress finally decided to kill the franchise bid of ABS-CBN, the biggest radio and television broadcast network in the country. Thirteen hearings were held to deal with various issues hurled by Duterte’s minions in congress against the network. Among the issues discussed were the network’s alleged tax evasion schemes, and the citizenship of former ABS-CBN chairman Eugenio Lopez III. The congressmen also dealt on issues regarding the content of TV shows, matters that are beyond the scope of Congress.

In addition to its Quezon City station, ABS-CBN operates 46 local stations across the country that broadcast for free. It also has 12 free digital channels, as well as 10 cable and four satellite paid channels. It also operates DZMM and three other AM radio stations, as well as 17 MOR (My Only Ra­dio) FM stations and 16 more in the provinces. These were closed down, excluding paid cable and satellite channels that are not covered by the franchise. The Lopezes disclosed that the company has been losing about ₱30-35 million per day since their broadcast was put off-air.

Congressmen deny that Rodrigo Duterte was behind the closure order. However, on July 13, Duterte himself boasted that he has succeeded in dismantling the oligarchy by shutting down ABS-CBN. Since he sat in power, he has repeatedly threatened to close the network which he accused of bias and favoring his rivals during the 2016 elections. He was further enraged with the network for covering his regime’s bloody “war on drugs.” He ordered the closure of the company amid the pandemic and lockdown, and at a time when only a few stations are capable of providing free television broadcast services across the country.

The franchise application process has long weaponized against free press by the ruling clique as the approval of franchise bids are mainly dependent on the whims of the president and congressmen. In fact, this process is often enmeshed in dirty politics as the authority to grant franchises is monopolized by those in power. Re­pub­lic Act 3846 states that broadcast companies are required to obtain a legislative franchise to operate. These franchise bids have to pass through the bureaucratic eye of the needle of Congress, and then go to the president for signing in the form of a new law. Although applications go through hearings and discussions, the approval is mainly dependent on who is in power. This is in contrast to countries where the said authority is given to independent commissions. The franchise system is also being used as a milking cow by bureaucrat capitalists.

This system undermines the right of the media to free press. Similar to how it was used against ABS-CBN, this may also be used to silence other media networks to prevent them from exposing government abuses and incompetence. In new franchises issued by the Duterte regime to broadcasting companies such as those granted to GMA and The 5 Network, a provision was inserted obliging them to allocate 10% of their paid commercials for government-use. This is being used by the ruling clique to freely broadcast their advertisements and programs which feature the regime’s officials. There is also a provision which grants the president a special right to take over media stations, and to broadcast and operate their facilities “in times of war, rebellion, public peril, calamity, emergency, disaster or serious disturbance of peace and order.”