Franchise renewal as a defense of press freedom

ABS-CBN workers join the Black Friday calling for the renewal of the media outfit’s franchise, which is set to expire in March this year. (Photo by Carlo Manalansan / Bulatlat)

A little more than a month before the House of Representatives (HOR) goes on a Holy Week break, the Committee on Legislative Franchises chaired by Palawan 1st District Rep. Franz Alvarez has not yet scheduled hearings on bills seeking to renew the franchise of ABS-CBN.

The network’s franchise is set to expire by the end of March but the HOR has only until March 11 to hear the pending measures aiming to extend the network’s operations for another 25 years.

Last week, 11 legislators signed House Resolution 639 pointing out the urgency to discuss the ABS-CBN bills. The resolution states that the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise “is inextricably linked to the exercise of press freedom.”

Last year, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened the ABS-CBN anew. “Ang inyong franchise mag-end next year [Your franchise will end next year]. If you are expecting na ma-renew ‘yan [a renewal], I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out,” said Duterte during the oath-taking of newly appointed government officials in Malacañang.

Duterte has been issuing one tirade after another against ABS-CBN due to its alleged failure to air a political advertisements during the election campaign period in 2016. His trolls have labeled ABS-CBN, along with Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler, as “biased, dilawan (supporter of Liberal Party), bayaran (corrupt).” His public pronouncements against the Philippine media speak volumes of his real intent – silence the independent media so he could continue his economic and political policies which serve only the elite few.

The attacks on press freedom have been unrelenting under the Duterte administration. The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict considers critical journalists as enemies of the state. Some government officials have repeatedly red-tagged the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the largest organization of journalists in the country. Members of the alternative media were targeted by cyber-attacks. Some of them were harassed, surveilled, detained and charged with fabricated criminal cases.

The only reason why press freedom is still alive is because journalists and the Filipino people continue to assert it.

By pounding on ABS-CBN, Duterte aims to create a chilling effect among media practitioners. If he could bully the biggest broadcast network, what could stop him from doing the same to others? He and his minions in the House wield the franchise renewal like a Damocles sword, ready to maim freedom of speech and whatever is left of our democracy.

This is not about defending a business empire against another oligarch seeking to control it. More than anything, it is indeed an issue of one less independent media outfit amid a well-funded campaign of disinformation and lies. The 11,000 jobs on the line would be the “collateral damage” in this state-perpetrated attack.

We must not let the enemies of the truth triumph. We must exert pressure, enough pressure to the members of the House not to be Duterte’s rubber stamp. Sign the petition calling for franchise renewal, write letters addressed to Alvarez and other members of the House committee. Let us collectively reject the tyrant in Malacañan Palace.

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