President Rodrigo Duterte’s repeated threats against ABS-CBN — the latest his declaration that he will “see to it” that it will be “out” once its franchise to operate expires — must be challenged and opposed, quite simply because it is wrong.
It is wrong for its pettiness and narrow, self-serving, and vindictive partisanship. But it is equally wrong for its pro-people and anti-oligarchy pretensions.
Mr. Duterte would not only shut down the country’s biggest radio and television network, which employs over 11,000 men and women all over the country, on no other basis than his claim that it did not air his propaganda materials during the 2016 campaign for the Presidency. He would also enable his cronies — one of whom is only too eager to add the network to his vast range of recent acquisitions — into taking control of it in a reprise of the crony capitalism of the Marcos dictatorship. Once that happens, one of the most influential media organizations in the Philippines will become no more than a regime mouthpiece and the platform from which its purveyors of false information will dominate public discourse.
His arrogant certainty that the House of Representatives will do as he wants also underscores once more the demise of that body’s supposedly co-equal status and independence, and its lethal impact on the tattered remains of Philippine democracy. But Mr. Duterte’s threat is even more fundamentally wrong for being an attack on a media organization for airing reports on the thousands of killings in his so-called “war on drugs” and for some of its anchors’ and reporters’ being critical of his China and West Philippine Sea Policy. Mr. Duterte wrongly presumes that he is lord and master of all he surveys and has the prerogative to allow only those media organizations that pander to him and his regime to exist and to continue to function despite Article III Section 4 of the Constitution.
This latest threat against the media is so obviously meant to intimidate not only the independent press but also every truth-teller, whether human rights defender or rural missionary. It is an assault on media freedom and the right to free expression and information from the multiplicity of sources citizens need to exercise their sovereign power to decide on matters that concern them.
The shutdown of any media organization, whether big or small and whatever its views, reduces the number of contending voices on which citizens depend to get at the truth. All media and journalists’ organizations, media advocacy groups, civil society, and everyone else who still believes in media freedom, free expression, and democracy must expose the Duterte threat for the brazenly tyrannical scheme to intimidate the media that it is, and demand that the House of Representatives renew ABS-CBN’s franchise.
As in the case of regime attempts to silence the online news site Rappler, a threat against one is a threat against all. Once ABS-CBN is shut down on the say-so of a president who despises criticism and truth-telling, every other media organization can be similarly silenced by denying or withdrawing its franchise, or through some other nefarious means.
And yet, despite Mr. Duterte’s threats and his subaltern Alan Peter Cayetano’s repeatedly echoing of them, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) found that much of the media, including ABS-CBN itself, have chosen to keep silent about it, apparently because of the cutthroat rivalry in the broadcasting industry, and ABS-CBN’s hesitation in reporting on something in which its self-interest is involved. But there is also the mistaken belief that despite Mr. Duterte’s attacks on press freedom and free expression, it is still possible to negotiate and reason with him.
Among the broadcast organizations, only CNN Philippines and TV 5’s Aksyon have so far aired any report on ABS-CBN’s problem with Mr. Duterte. Print was more forthright. The three Manila newspapers of general circulation did report on it in addition to Mr. Duterte’s rant, and so did some columnists. Some reports also pointed out that despite Cayetano’s assurance of “due process,” he himself has been criticizing ABS-CBN for being allegedly anti-regime.
It was on social media — on Twitter and Facebook — where there was more attention paid to it, and where most Netizens expressed their opposition to the shutting down of ABS-CBN. But the prospects for the renewal of its franchise are not encouraging. There is a bill pending in the House renewing the ABS-CBN franchise when it expires on March 30, 2020. Cayetano earlier assured the public that the House would discuss it before yearend. But he is now saying that they have enough time to do next year, when, if its franchise is not renewed, the network will have to cease operations.
Mr. Duterte’s most recent tirade against ABS-CBN was his fourth in the last two years. He accused the network of unfair reporting in 2017, and of refusing to run political ads that he said he had paid for. In May of the same year, he also threatened to file charges against it for allegedly “swindling” him. He said the same things and made the same threats a year ago, in November 2018.
Not only for the possible loss of employment of thousands of men and women should the threat to shut down the country’s biggest broadcasting network have made the six o’clock news and aroused citizen concern. It would also send to the rest of the media and everyone else the unmistakable message that the Duterte regime will not relent in its campaign to silence its perceived critics, including any entity that dares show some semblance of independence.
Mr. Duterte has used the powers of his office as well as his control over the other two supposedly independent and co-equal branches of government to harass and silence his critics in and out of the media. Not only has he threatened online news site Rappler and the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper; he has also made good on those threats. Rappler has had to defend itself from 11 complaints and court cases meant to intimidate and silence it, even as its reporters are prevented from covering public events in which Mr. Duterte is present. The regime’s keyboard army of trolls and its print media hacks also demonize the Inquirer at every opportunity.
The threatened and impending shutdown of ABS-CBN is part of the same assault aimed at intimidating not only the critical press, but also anyone and anything else that takes seriously the democratic need to monitor and hold government to account.
But because he has not placed the entire Philippines under martial law as Ferdinand Marcos did in 1972, there is the mistaken belief that Mr. Duterte’s rule is not as oppressive as that of his idol and mentor. His implementation of what amounts to de facto martial rule without the benefit of a declaration has lulled the citizenry into the mistaken belief that he won’t go as far.
It explains why much of the news media, including ABS-CBN, seem unable to understand the urgency of bringing the issue to the public’s attention as a threat not only to the entire press but also to free expression and the plurality of voices democracy needs to survive. Make no mistake about it: Mr. Duterte and his accomplices are as focused on silencing anyone and anything with any glimmer of independent thought as the Marcos terror regime was.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).