Make no mistake about it: the shutdown of the ABS-CBN media conglomerate by the Philippine Congress has politics and President Rodrigo Duterte’s fingerprints all over it.
The non-renewal of the legislative franchise of the country’s biggest media network demonstrates very clearly two things: one, the legislative branch of government is totally under the thumb of the executive branch; and two, that this administration will stop at nothing to bring the entire country under authoritarian rule even without formally declaring martial law.
This is the second time the media network will be shut down since the 1970s. In 1972, it was closed down by the Marcos regime upon the formal declaration of martial law.
This time, the shutdown came via a de facto martial law situation where draconian restrictions are in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. It also takes place under a political landscape where administration allies dominate the legislature, particularly the House of Representatives that has the sole power to grant or renew legislative franchises.
The effect, however, is the same: wield total control over Philippine media and what Duterte apparently really wants: consolidate political power by suppressing all political dissent.
The key issue here is press freedom. The non-renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise is intended to send a chilling effect on the rest of Philippine media that they should obey what Malacañang says or else get padlocked.
The resolution of the committee made liars out of several government agencies—the Department of Justice, Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Securities and Exchange Commission, among others—that had certified that the media conglomerate had complied with the laws regarding the citizenship of its chairman emeritus,100 percent Filipinos ownership, payment of taxes, and other issues.
We believe the network adequately refuted all the allegations against it, and convinced many Filipinos that indeed they deserved the renewal of their franchise.
We cannot help but entertain a sneaking suspicion that the resolution, completed right after the committee terminated its hearings, was written by the lawyers of the administration long beforehand, and followed precisely what Duterte had long wanted to do: shut down the media network.
Duterte had made no secret of his disdain for the media conglomerate for two reasons: one, its alleged failure to show his campaign advertisements during the 2016 presidential elections even if he said he had paid for them; and two, its supposed negative portrayal of his bloody war on drugs.
This is pure vindictiveness coming from no less than the highest elected official of the land who should wield power to unite the people and protect press freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.
We are convinced that those who voted to reject the franchise did so because of extreme pressure from the administration to deliver the goods or else suffer the loss of pork barrel funds for pet projects that everyone knows makes recipients invariably laugh all the way to the bank.
The non-renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise would also displace a total of 11,000 employees of the network who would now have to find jobs amid the economic collapse brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The non-renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise does not mean that all its operations will come to a grinding halt, however: only its free TV and radio service will be affected, but its digital operations can continue.
Still, we will not be surprised if the government wants to look for means fair and foul to shut down all of the network’s operations, short of sending tanks and camouflaged soldiers to seal off all entrances and exits of the broadcast facility and thus keep it off the air for good.
A recent survey showed that three-fourths of Filipinos wanted the media network to be given a new franchise. By ignoring the strong clamor from the citizenry to allow ABS-CBN to continue its operations despite convincing evidence that is has complied with all the rules, the government has clearly shown its authoritarian bent and contempt for democratic processes.
By pulling the plug on a established media institution that has served the nation for many decades, the Duterte administration has imperiled press freedom enshrined in our fundamental law and ushered in a long dark night for Philippine democracy.
Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.