Closure of the giant ABS-CBN couldn't have come at a worst time for the Filipinos
The recent vote in the House of Representatives on the fate of the country's largest TV-radio station, ABS-CBN, did not come as a surprise at all, considering the pressure that President Duterte had applied on the solons in that chamber.
After 12 public hearings over a month on the issue of the giant network's legislative franchise---conducted principally by the House Committee on Legislative Franchises, chaired by Palawan 1st District Rep. Franz Alvarez, together with those of good government and public accountability--- these committees, comprising 85 members in all, voted with 70 members for SHUTTING DOWN the network, 11 for renewal, with two members inhibiting and another abstaining.
The shutdown became effective after Congress members voted against giving the network another 25-year license to operate. It will be recalled that ABS-CBN was shut down last May 5 by the National Telecommunications under the Office of the President---a day after its 25-year franchise had expired. Some 11,000 permanent as well as freelance contract workers would be affected.
Reports swirled that the marching order to Congress to deny the giant channel a franchise renewal came straight from the Office of the President. I would imagine that such a most significant move of tremendous and far-reaching consequences would have to come from the powers that be.
It was, however, a cause lost not without a fight. Rep. Carlos Zarate of the minority bloc made a last-minute plea for approval of the franchise. His line: why punish a company that did not breach our laws. But another solon, Rodante Marcoleta of the majority bloc and one of the channel's fiercest critics, argued that "regardless of legal argumentation in favor of ABS-CBN, "it is the will of Congress that should be accorded due respect." And that is closure.
But of course, it was left to House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, handpicked by President Duterte to head the lower chamber, to deliver the most revealing stand in support of the huge media power-play. Cayetano argued that "it's not press freedom that's at stake here, but the question of media protecting its business interest." Toward this issue, the House chief grandly proclaimed that it will be "a conscience vote."
Far from being a "conscience" issue, however, everyone can see that in reality it's a huge power play between two giants. What I lament most are two things: the blow to media freedom and the poor timing of the shut-down.
This move to block the renewal of ABS-CBN's franchise cannot but be perceived in many circles as a blow to media freedom, and it has sent tremendous shock-waves to other Southeast Asian nations, as the Philippines---long a political ward of the United States---is viewed especially in this region as the bulwark of all kinds of innate as well as acquired and practiced concepts of freedoms.
This was highlighted most especially after the EDSA Revolution of 1986, when ruling dictator Ferdinand Marcos was thrown out by the celebrated EDSA People Power. To the outside world that has been following the Philippines' supposed progression toward political maturity, however, this recent move by the House of Representatives to shut down the giant media network would be tough for the outside world to understand in that light.
Why the poor timing of the shut-down of ABS-CBN? Many reasons, aside from shattering the democratic image of this country in the eyes of a world that values press freedom so much. It comes at a time when vital news information about the Covid pandemic sweeping the country is badly needed. Because ABS-CBN is the country's largest and most popular media channel, it is absolutely necessary to keep it operating---so the communication lines are kept open from the central government down to the smallest barangay in the country and its citizens. No other channel---be it government or private---can rival the reach of ABS-CBN.
The shut-down is very poor timing in another sense. Business is bad in these pandemic times and will doubtless continue to be bad in the next two or three years. As a result of the shut-down of the giant network, some 11 million permanent as well as free-lance Filipinos somehow involved with the network were thrown out of jobs.
This, however, does not take into account the tens of thousands who are not directly employed by the network, but who are involved in the MANUFACTURE AND MARKETING of local products most effectively advertised by this largest network in the Philippines. It is estimated that some 69 million Filipinos would be affected by the loss of ABS-CBN and the kind of information analysis, commentary and public service it has been providing over the decades.
There is no question that the closure of ABS-CBN will bring all kinds of economic woes to the country at a worst time---amid a raging deadly virus pandemic that has inched frightfully toward our shores. Why the closure when problems could have been threshed out and solutions and compromises studied and even offered by both sides?