May 5, 2020 (7:54 PM)

3 min read


Cartoon by Maria Cyra Jane Dealca

Free speech, after all, doesn’t come without a cost. 

The struggle for free speech never ends. Now, on its latest push against media outlets President Rodrigo Duterte finds as critical of his administration, Solicitor General Jose Calida lodged a complaint against the country’s leading broadcast network, ABS-CBN.

Calida filed a quo warranto accusing the corporation and its subsidiary of violating the operating franchise granted by the Congress which is set to expire this March 30.

The petition claims that ABS-CBN unlawfully exercised its franchise by offering paid broadcast without government authorization and allowing foreign ownership of its corporation, months after ABS-CBN filed for its request for franchise renewal. Despite its announcement that a hearing will be held on March 10, the House of Representatives also adjourned its last session day before a two-month Lenten break without tackling the renewal bid.

On one hand, the timing of the quo warranto filing raises questions as to the true motive of its petitioner, who is speculated to be acting under the directive of the President himself. The fascist lapdog that he is, Calida’s act is a clear manifestation of political maneuvering motivated by this administration’s desire to stifle the voices which are critical of Duterte’s leadership.

Given Duterte’s hold of a supermajority in Congress, it is more disturbing how he may be exerting his power to persuade Congress to stall ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal. Evidently, this administration is exhausting its means to gain control of the same institutions which should be checking on its power. 

It is unsurprising how the Duterte administration has again employed sinister yet legally ingenious ways to advance its interests. As it turns out, the quo warranto petition filed against ABS-CBN was similar to that filed against the ousted Former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. 

The same litigious power play, however, is not without its fair share of loopholes and contradictions. Based on Calida’s petition, ABS-CBN’s use of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs)–financial instruments sold to local and foreign investors–are unconstitutional since media companies should be 100% Filipino-owned. However, his party failed to reconcile how the franchise of GMA-7, another media giant, was renewed despite having PDRs patterned after ABS-CBN’s. In addition,the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) clarified that holders of PDRs do not have voting rights, hence they are not owners of the corporation.

Duterte slamming ABS-CBN for not showing his campaign ads in the 2016 elections further sheds light on his unreasonable yet deliberate insistence to shut down the media company. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, only 3.4% of his ads were not aired on national television–these were purchased late and came with a first-come, first-served basis. When a portion of the payment was returned, Duterte refused to accept it. 

Behind all the litigious games and word wars, it is clear that the move to bar ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal is an affront on press freedom. Looking back at the lessons of history, rift between administrations and the media isn’t entirely new, yet, like ABS-CBN’s experience during the Marcos era, it is threatening how the democratic process could be rendered vulnerable once the press is silenced. 

As ABS-CBN finds itself at the brink of closure, the Filipino people are also at the edge of losing a long-established dissenting voice. While it forms only a portion of the broad web of news companies in the country, the shutdown of this media giant could severely cripple free speech in the country, and along with it, justice and human rights.

The editorial was previously published in the March 2020 issue of Atenews, read it here:

End the silence of the gagged!

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