When the House Committee on Legislative Franchises voted last Thursday to deny ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal bid, the guillotine fell on one of the Philippines’ largest media and entertainment networks. Killing 11,000 jobs at a time of economic uncertainty and extinguishing a source of news for Filipinos in far-flung areas in the context of a pandemic, the decision of the House sends a chilling message that this administration will stop at nothing until the critical press is made to pay the price, even using legal means to usher its political agenda.
Forced off air by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) last May 2020 after the expiration of its 25-year franchise, ABS-CBN has told its employees that they could be let go by August should the franchise be denied by the House of Representatives. Thirteen hearings on the franchise bills were conducted by the Lower House of Congress since then, with accusations ranging from tax evasion, labor law violations, citizenship, foreign ownership, political bias, and inappropriate program content.
While the congressional hearings managed to shed light on some of ABS-CBN’s shortcomings, the reasons cited for the denial of its franchise raises speculations that ABS-CBN is being singled out among the many corporations in the country.
In terms of tax avoidance, The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) has presented data of ABS-CBN’s tax payments from 2016 to 2019 and issued a tax clearance to absolve ABS-CBN of liability. The Lower House, however, insisted that tax clearance does not mean ‘absence of fraud or tax liability’, citing ABS-CBN’s ‘questionable and unjust’ tax avoidance schemes. But in the Constitution, tax avoidance is not prohibited, because it uses completely legal methods to minimize taxable income—to which the House did acknowledge. If anything, the case of ABS-CBN just proves how the tax system in the country is flawed and prone to abuse by the ruling class. The House could be merely banking on their arbitrary and subjective interpretation of ‘questionable and unjust’ tax avoidance schemes, appealing to legal loopholes themselves despite ABS-CBN’s compliance with tax regulations.
What could have been the House’s strongest argument against ABS-CBN was on the issue of labor law violations. Last July 1, 2020, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) released an official statement declaring that its “labor inspectors found violations of laws and standards by ABS-CBN” and that it was “misleading to attribute to [DOLE] the claim that ABS-CBN is a compliant company.” Despite being a multi-billion company, it was revealed that only 25 percent or 2,661 of the total 11,701 workers are regular employees.
Citizenship and foreign ownership, however, can be regarded as non-issues. Since the Constitution remains vague regarding the citizenship requirement for the ownership of mass media, there should be enough reason not to question ABS-CBN chairman emeritus Eugenio ‘Gabby’ Lopez. In former Ateneo School of Government Dean Tony La Vina’s words, “the revelation that Lopez is a dual Filipino and American citizen should close that issue.” With the Supreme Court yet to settle controversies squarely involving dual citizens and the 100 percent Filipino requirement, however, it fell upon Congress to interpret the said provision.
The argument on Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs) has also been addressed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). SEC Commissioner Ephyro Amatong confirmed that PDRs were “allowed and registered with the government” and were “not evidence of ownership”. Thus, PDRs are only financial instruments and not shares that entitle holders to vote and participate in the management of the media company.
Meanwhile, the Lower House pointed out ABS-CBN’s “biased reporting, inappropriate program content, and political meddling”. This section seems to be most disturbing, considering the corporate nature of ABS-CBN. It is simply a myth to believe that media companies can remain wholly unbiased. The term ‘bias’ in itself is contentious since its interpretation would depend on the person viewing or reading a story. And who is Congress to define what is appropriate content and what is not? As far as our democratic rights are concerned, Filipino directors and media creators possess artistic freedom, although exercised in a climate of responsibility. To assert that only shows that ‘preserve Filipino cultural values and morality’ should be aired is to limit this freedom while undermining the value of other themes.
Lastly, the issue on political meddling seems most suggestive of the hidden agenda behind this case. The findings of the Technical Working Group (TWG), while detailed and informative, give only evidence of ABS-CBN’s alleged bias against Pres. Rodrigo Duterte. This is dubious since, if the Lower House truly believes that there is overwhelming evidence enough to point out ABS-CBN’s bias, then shouldn’t they also cite cases against other politicians or entities?
The House has pointed out how their decision was in no way related to the suppression of press freedom, but merely “a denial of a privilege granted by the State because the applicant was seen as undeserving of the grant of a legislative franchise.” But this isn’t the first attack on the media under the Duterte administration, and a review of recent history would prove that this has all been building up to a catharsis.
In 2017, Duterte openly warned and threatened not to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise after the media giant aired an advertisement of the then candidate cursing, delivering rape jokes, and threatening to kill, which was paid for by his opposition. Gaining more of his ire, ABS-CBN failed to air at least P6.6 million worth of his campaign ads in 2016. Although Duterte asserted that he will “not interfere” with the Congress’ decision, his personal motivation remains loud and clear, and this echoes through the agenda of his allies in the House.
Shutting down ABS-CBN, known to be critical of the administration since Marcos’ dictatorship, sends a chilling effect to the country’s democracy. Although press freedom may not be dead, it is evidently very much under attack. History would teach us how dark those days have been when media outlets and personalities were silenced to stifle dissent.
Though there are other online platforms where ABS-CBN can still exercise its freedom to deliver information, there is a significant portion of the population that is limited by geography or income to televised news broadcasts. Taking away a mass media platform, television, deprives these Filipinos of their right to information and stunts their capacity to make knowing, sensible decisions. Worse, they may end up blind to issues affecting them or misguided by limited and filtered information.
While ABS-CBN is no saint— if it really values its employees, then it could explore assisting them to get alternative jobs— the timing of the Congress’ decision is in itself anti-people, leaving 11,000 jobless in this pandemic and economic recession. Instead of outright denying it a franchise, a complaint in the DOLE can be filed against ABS-CBN. This way, the corporation can be held accountable for its unfair labor practices while still being allowed to operate and deliver integral information to the public. And while they’re at it, they might as well investigate other corporations’ labor practices to protect ordinary citizens, and put an end to abusive, contractual employment.
The guillotine may have fallen on ABS-CBN’s franchise, but the fight for a free press continues. If anything, this predicament only calls for more vigilance from the public not only in terms of protecting our individual freedoms but also with regard to checking on the exercise of powers by our lawmakers— whether or not these acts are truly representative of the people and our interests.
Ultimately, those in the ruling class must be true to their social responsibility in valuing the welfare and security of their employees. The State, as it protects its citizens, must not single out one wrongdoing, but all, regardless of under whose administration—and it should do this without political bias and prejudice.