“First they came for the journalists. Then we don’t know what happened next.”
Every time press freedom is threatened, this sobering statement emblazoned on a protest sign somehow makes the rounds on social media. The last time it did was in February this year, in response to what became the first attack against broadcasting giant ABS-CBN.
Here’s a recap: On Feb. 10, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a quo warranto petition to the Supreme Court to revoke the network’s franchise. This was before the franchise was set to end on Mar. 30.
Today, a day after the official expiration of ABS-CBN’s franchise, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) ordered the network through a cease-and-desist order to stop operating its television and radio broadcasting stations nationwide, “absent a valid Congressional Franchise required by law.”
There are currently 11 bills in the House of Representatives on ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal, but all remain pending. Despite this, the House gave assurance that the network would not be shut down even after the lapse of its franchise. Congress also called on the NTC to grant provisions to ABS-CBN so it can continue operating while the House was set to discuss the pending bills.
Inquirer reported: “[In] February, Cayetano and Palawan Rep. Franz Alvarez, the franchise committee chair, earlier sent a letter to the NTC enjoining the commission to grant a provisional authority to operate to ABS-CBN effective on May 4, 2020, ‘until such time that the House of Representatives/Congress has made a decision on its application.’”
A month later on Mar. 10, an assurance was given by the NTC through Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba, telling the House that “they will follow the advice of the Department of Justice, allowing ABS-CBN to operate while its franchise renewal bid is pending in Congress,” Inquirer wrote.
NTC backtracked on all this today, however, after Calida on May 3 (the day before the franchise’s lapse) warned the NTC against granting the network provisional authority.
In adherence to the NTC order, ABS-CBN ceased broadcasting across its TV and radio channels today, after the evening news. Online and even in private circles, people have begun sharing their sentiments, some watching the network’s sign-off in tears. Others recalled memories and historical notes of the last time the network was shut down––the 1972 imposition of Martial Law.
Exclusive authority of Congress
This move has put ABS-CBN in a bind (and technically also blindsided). Despite having been assured that they would be able to continue operating, they have now been forced to shut down.
Alvarez earlier today said that the NTC “may be held for contempt” for their actions, as they “backtracked” on their earlier pronouncement. “Posible po. On record sila, under oath sila nung sinabi na sila ay magi-issue ng provisional authority kaya gusto nating malaman, anong nangyari at bakit sila biglang nagbacktrack?” Alvarez said in an interview with ABS-CBN-owned DZMM.
This move by the NTC also goes against the House’s authority. Technically, Congress has the sole authority to decide on the matter because under the 1987 Constitution, Congress alone may grant and revoke franchises. The NTC’s order violated this, citing Republic Act Nos. 3846 (Radio Control Law) and 7966, which granted ABS-CBN its 25-year franchise in 1995.
Because the matter of applying for a franchise requires the filing of a bill, and in ABS-CBN’s case a private bill (which Hector De Leon and Hector De Leon, Jr. define in the 2011 edition of “Textbook on the Philippine Constitution”—a must-have for any amateur ace attorneys and any college student studying Political Science 100—as “one affecting purely private interest, such as one granting a franchise to a person or corporation”), it can only be crafted by the House of Representatives. (Sec. 24, Art. 6, if you want to look it up.)
Radio (and TV) silence
While lawmakers are furious over the issued order and many citizens are left disappointed, there also remains a portion of the population that deems the shutdown a non-essential matter.
There are other news sources, they say—and with the internet and social media, they’re definitely not wrong.
But the problem here isn’t whether or not we’re lacking in information sources. Nitty-gritty legalities aside, the ABS-CBN shutdown poses a problem because it shows the ever-present and growing threat to press freedom. If a giant broadcasting network like ABS-CBN could be shut down like this, what more other news outfits?
This also comes at a time when we are most in need of reliable sources of information.
ABS-CBN operates on TV and radio—two of the most pervasive mediums in the country—and its reach is one of the widest, having channels available nationwide. The loss of this network is the loss of an information source for people at the peripheries, a place where the only way to receive news is through traditional media—TV and radio.
The growing infodemic
This entire issue couldn’t have come at a worse time. While the country is battling the COVID-19 pandemic, this threat to press freedom may contribute to the rise of a different pandemic—one of misinformation.
The World Health Organization calls this an infodemic—a situation where “fake news spreads faster than the virus.” Infodemics happen when there is “an excessive amount of information about a problem, making it difficult to find a solution.”
With one less reliable media resource in the country, one with a nationwide reach at that, Filipinos may be forced to turn to alternative sources. And these sources may not be as credible or may not have thorough fact-checking and verification systems in place.
Over the years, we’ve seen the rise in popularity of blogs and influencers with an agenda—and a majority of their audience have become (blind) followers of these personalities masquerading as trusted experts and public servants.
If we continue to allow our watch dogs—the press—to be caged and leashed, we’re also allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to misinformation, propaganda and even more diversionary tactics.
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Writer: PAULINE MIRANDA
ART JOEY SIMBULAN