QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 08 May) — Since it was incorporated as ABS-CBN from the merger of Alto Broadcasting System (ABS) and Chronicle Broadcasting Network (CBN) in February 1967, ABS-CBN Corporation has evolved into the largest media broadcasting network in the country, owning/operating dozens of television and radio stations stretching from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. It also owns subsidiary corporations in Australia, United States, Cayman Islands and in many countries of Europe as well as holds economic interests in a number of local affiliates. The extent of the media giant is such that it currently employs an estimated 11,000 or so employees.
The fate of the 11,000 employees of ABS-CBN, much like their colleagues during the martial law years, once again hangs in the balance when its franchise expired on May 4, 2000 and the National Telecommunications issued the controversial cease and desist order without issuing a provisional authority to operate. Legal arguments aside for or against the grant of a provisional authority to operate, it has been a long standing practice in the past for the NTC to grant provisional franchise to other corporations while their application for a legislative franchise is pending in Congress.
Let’s face it – the NTC, which is an adjunct agency of the executive branch, takes its cue from the President who in the past unleashed a tirade against the media giant allegedly because it failed to air some of his paid advertisements during the presidential campaign of 2016. Many feel that this is just a pretext to intimidate and coerce ABS-CBN for its independence.
One can argue that the grant of a legislative franchise is within the authority of Congress and not that of the President. Yes true, Congress, not the President, grants the franchise, but in our political system where democratic institutions and public accountability remain weak, separation of powers can sometimes be an illusion. In reality, the President wields enormous powers and influence over the legislature and sometimes even the Supreme Court, some will say. And it is wrong to underestimate this influence by the President of the Republic. Did the inaction by Congress, especially the President’s political allies in the legislature, the direct result of the President’s attacks against the media giant? In the final analysis, the Chief Executive has the overall responsibility for the ABS-CBN fiasco. He could have stopped the NTC from issuing the cease and desist order and even urged his allies in Congress to grant the franchise.
Neither can Congress do a Pontius Pilate and wash its hands to distance itself from this debacle. There are 11 bills for the renewal of ABS-CBN franchise now pending before Congress. In fact, as early as 2014, ABS-CBN applied for its franchise renewal; 16th, 17th, and now 18th congresses have come and gone, nothing happened. In 2016, Nueva Ecija Representative Violago filed a bill asking for the grant of another 25 years, which she re-filed in 2019. If Congress were so minded, it could pass the bill for franchise renewal in less than two weeks, at most one month. Heck, the two houses can even do a fast break and pass it in 2 days!
From the very start, I have taken the position that the ABS-CBN franchise renewal is a free speech issue. The fate of ABS-CBN sends chills to other independent media outlets which are not on the same page with this administration. The message to media outlets critical of the government is clear – refuse to toe the line and you well end up like ABS-CBN. But can we still call ourselves a democracy when dissent and criticism are not allowed?
Freedom is the essence of democracy, and without this basic right we are all reduced to puppets and “yes men” that can only open the flood gates of abuse of power and impunity. We used to have one of the most vibrant free press in the world before martial law, but Marcos wanted nothing of it and muzzled the media. One of the first victims then was ABS-CBN when it was shut down in September of 1972 and all of its properties seized. Thirty four years since President Cory restored the network to its rightful owners, ABS-CBN has fallen victim once again.
In this critical period of our country’s life, when the world is battling the most serious public health emergency of our generation and people are in varying degrees of lockdowns and restrictions as a result, independent media outlets, like ABS-CBN, may be the only source of critical information and entertainment. It’s like a sick joke. The people of Luzon and the Visayas are not the only ones dismayed but more so those living in Mindanao.
Beginning May 5, Mindanawons could no longer tune in on their favourite radio and television channels like ABS-CBN stations in Davao, Cagayan de Oro, Zamboanga, TV-2 Bukidnon, D-2-XB-TV, ABS-CBN TV-7 Ozamiz, ABS-CBN TV-4 Iligan to name a few relay stations. In far flung and poorer sitios and barangays of Mindanao where internet connectivity may not be as extensive as in other parts of the country, these ABS-CBN stations are the only source of reliable information and entertainment. Whichever way you look at it, the ABS-CBN franchise debacle impacts the poor more than any other social class. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Antonio “Tony” La Viña of Cagayan de Oro City is former Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. He teaches Constitutional law in several schools in Manila and Mindanao)