"The ABS-CBN case has not, nor has it ever been, purely an issue of free speech or freedom of the press." -- House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, February 18, 2020
[RELATED READING: "CCPC: Why the ABS-CBN case is a press freedom issue," SunStar, July 12, 2020. "The strange, curious case of ABS-CBN shutdown not being a press freedom issue," Media's Public, Feb. 28, 2020.]
THERE would've been less noise on the issue of press freedom in the House rejection of the bills seeking to grant ABS-ABN a new franchise if the protagonists had agreed on what they disagree about.
But public argument over government policy or action is not like a formal debate where the proposition is laid down, "Resolved that...," before anyone speaks. In the ABS-CBN controversy, most people who weigh in talk about anything and everything related to it, with the terms undefined and the lines not drawn.
The ABS-CBN dispute erupted early in the first months of the year as May 4, the expiry date of its 25-year-old franchise, neared.
The basic issue was whether the broadcast network, unlike the others, so rampantly and blatantly violated the conditions of its franchise that it should not be renewed.
Not a major issue then
Press freedom was not the core issue. As a franchisee -- which used government resource in its TV and radio broadcasts and was issued frequencies for it -- ABS-CBN was exercising a privilege, which the state, through Congress, had the power to grant, deny or take away. If it were a printed newspaper or content provider, no franchise would be needed, Cayetano said.
The matter of press freedom surged to the top later, with the trumpeted and repeated promise of the president to shut down the network because of his personal grievance against it. Selfish motive in the House review thus became suspect since the House was and is dominated by the president's allies who would do his bidding.
Highlighted in report
Suspicion was further fueled by charges of media bias, denial of right of reply and unfairness, and other alleged violations of standards by the network. And the five complainants were committee members themselves who obviously had an ax to grind against ABS-CBN. If the franchise review was not initially projected as one, it soon became a press freedom issue, up front and center. The assault on the franchise could be hit-back from the power wielders.
The hearings, as recorded in the technical working group's report that the committee on legislative franchises voted on, spent a lot of time on alleged journalistic malpractices and political meddling by ABS-CBN. The TWG report also highlighted the issue of press freedom as the cap, the last punch, in its 41-page recommendation to reject the franchise.
ABS-CBN, to be sure, could not disclaim responsibility by simply invoking press freedom. If it could, no franchise holder would be held accountable. But neither must the issue of press freedom be shunned just because it might be used as shield for liability.
House Speaker Allan Peter Cayetano himself admitted it when he said the ABS-CBN case is not totally a press freedom issue. "Not purely," the words of his February 18 statement (lead quote, above).
It is an issue, not the sole issue, but one of a number of issues, including:
 What kind of violations merit the punishment of a shutdown and whether the network probably violated them;
 Whether the penalty could be similar to what other erring franchise holders got: fine or suspension with the correction of deficiencies;
 How to impose the kind of penalty that would be punitive and yet not inflict severe damage on the economy and wipe out source of livelihood for thousands of people who depend on ABS-CBN, and would not lose a principal source of news and entertainment to multitudes in far-flung villages and urban centers, here and abroad.
The House committee clearly had a tough job of harmonizing and balancing the conflicting interests at stake.
It must have looked at the pluses from renewing the network's franchise: a boost to the economy through jobs saved, particularly in time of pandemic and recession; enhanced culture and education through the TV and radio programs; and sparing the government from more damage on its reputation from accusations here and abroad that it scorns a free press, violates human rights and embraces policies veering towards authoritarian rule.
Yet the House decided to mete out the "capital punishment" on ABS-CBN, instead of a scolding and warning and the filing of charges before regulatory agencies.
Hardly comforting to the rest of media still standing, especially those that need a franchise to operate. Thus, the ABS-CBN case has become a press freedom issue, more so than it was when the dispute began.
[DISCLOSURE: Seares, public and standards editor of SunStar Cebu and SunStar Superbalita, is also executive director of Cebu Citizens-Press Council. CCPC contends, in separate statements of July 12 and May 6, 2020, that the ABS-CBN case is a press freedom issue and is "more destructive in these trying months of national emergency.")