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Seares: The strange, curious case of ABS-CBN shutdown not being a free-press issue

THERE are bases for saying that closing the operations of the broadcast network ABS-CBN is not an issue of press freedom.

[1] The threat in Congress not to renew its 25-year grant stems from the network’s alleged business violations. The “quo warranto” petition in the Supreme Court alleges such violations.

Violations of franchise cannot be refuted with assertion of press freedom.

[2] News and commentary are only a fraction of ABS-CBN’s product content. The bulk of what it does and the major source of its revenue are entertainment shows and programs.

[3] ABS-CBN can still operate, even if its franchise is not renewed, as a news and entertainment organization. It can use other platforms and devices for creating and transmitting broadcast content that are not covered by a franchise.

The network is not suppressed or silenced; it can still have its voice in the world of media.

[4] The requirement of a franchise means the exercise of press freedom by ABS-CBN is restricted. It is not the general limitation on press freedom. It is the inherent restriction on broadcast as means of expression and circulation. Licensing, not required in print and other media, is evidence of that.

Arguments for

Those who argue that the shutdown of ABS-CBN necessarily involves free speech and free press point out:

[1] The alleged violations should’ve been raised first with the agencies that regulate the operations of ABS-CBN, such as National Telecommunications Commission, Securities & Exchange Commission, and Bureau of Internal Revenue. They are better equipped and skilled to look into the violations than the legislature or the courts.

Thus, it looked awkward that the regulators told the Senate that ABS-CBN hadn’t violated regulations and if there were, they merited only fines and corrective measures. What would the solicitor general back up his petition with, given the evidence that the regulators initially provided at the hearing?

[2] The attack on ABS-CBN’s franchise by its nature infringes on free press and free speech. Never mind that (a) the network could still operate as a media entity, (b) it is not mostly devoted to news and information but to entertainment, and (c) broadcast by its nature is limited, given the rule on licensing which the state requires.

Presumptively unconstitutional

Former presidential spokesman Harry Roque, an expert on constitutional law and still an administration supporter, said on various talk shows that Solicitor General Jose Calida’s petition for quo warranto is presumptively unconstitutional.

The SolGen, Roque said, goes to court with the burden of proving that stripping ABS-CBN of its franchise won’t violate the Constitution under the provision on free speech and free press. The presumption is disputable, not conclusive, but it’s the petitioner who must take it down or the high court will reject the “quo warranto.”

How? Roque said Calida must prove that stripping ABS-CBN of its franchise is for “a greater good ,” bigger than any injury on the constitutional right to free speech and free press. That’s the legal part of the controversy.

Where most noise is

In the public debate, the issue of free speech is obscured or lost in the noise over violations in the network’s commercial operations. Which has been expanded to include alleged abuses and apathy of the network’s management to its lesser workers and talents. From the wood work have come out former ABS-CBN workers who had an axe to grind and bury on its back.

Being glossed over are the alleged acts of unfairness and partisanship that ABS-CBN showed in the 2016 and past elections. Except for the failure of the network to refund the money for un-aired political ads, there are no specifics on the rant over alleged violations of the Fair Election Act. That, even some people in media think, deserves full airing and explanation during the review of the franchise.

‘Greater good’

Critics of ABS-CBN allege that the network has used its media clout to help install senators and presidents and take down public officials whom it considers as enemies to their interest. Attesting to the network’s influence on public opinion, a number of senators were publicly slammed for making “sipsip” to ABS-CBN during the Senate hearing last Feb. 24.

That’s the more serious stuff relating to the reason for the franchise attack. If the forces in Congress and the Supreme Court could expose its truth, or falsehood, that could be the greater good that Harry Roque talked about.


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