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Being legal does not always mean being right

Shutdown of Philippines’ top broadcaster has had a chilling effect on a society that values press freedom

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Being legal does not always mean being right

Activists take part in a protest against the Philippine government-ordered shutdown of broadcaster ABS-CBN while observing social distancing in Manila on May 8. (Photo: Maria Tan/AFP)

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On May 5, the Philippine government ordered the country’s top broadcaster, ABS-CBN Corporation, to immediately cease operating its various TV and radio stations nationwide.

The media network’s 25-year-old franchise had expired on May 4. And so, according to the order, ABS-CBN no longer had “a valid and subsisting congressional franchise as required by law.”

The Philippine constitution says the granting of a media franchise is a congressional prerogative. The Supreme Court has ruled in many cases that a franchise is a privilege and may not be demanded as a matter of right.

But what happens when Congress sits on a franchise application because it was allegedly ordered to do so?

President Rodrigo Duterte is a staunch critic of ABS-CBN. His words about the network turned from comments to threats. For what reason? He claimed that he paid for political advertisements worth 11 million pesos (US$220,000) during his 2016 presidential election campaign but the network never aired them.

As early as 2017, Duterte had already shown his ire against the network. “You have no shame, your faces are too thick, you sons of bitches,” he told the network in comments to the press on one occasion.

The network has been in his crosshairs ever since.

In August 2018, he gave a hint of what the network’s fate would be. “Now, ABS-CBN, their franchise is due for renewal ... But if I had my way, I will not give it back to you,” Duterte said at his Manila residence.

In 2019, he again threatened to block the network’s franchise. “Your franchise will end next year. If you are expecting your franchise to be renewed, I am sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out,” Duterte said on national television.

ABS-CBN had claimed it applied to renew its congressional franchise in 2017. But Congress has never acted on it due to more “urgent” matters. And so, the network’s franchise did expire on May 4.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque wanted the public to believe that Duterte had nothing to do with the network’s shutdown. He claimed the president remains on “neutral ground” regarding the issue.

But many are not convinced. With Duterte’s repeated attacks since 2017, he has shown how press freedom can be threatened by one man who has Congress as his ally.

Law students are taught that the three branches of government — the executive, legislature and judiciary — exercise separate powers. The separation of powers serves as a check-and-balance mechanism to ensure civil rights and liberties are protected.

The Philippines went through a dark period during martial law when late strongman Ferdinand Marcos controlled Congress as well as the courts. Laws did not originate from Congress but from the president himself. The courts were shackled regarding military abuses — torture, baseless arrests and the extrajudicial killing of government critics.

The media was silenced. Now that ABS-CBN is not permitted to air news, the specter of martial law seems to loom large over the country once again.

The network has filed a petition with the Supreme Court questioning the legality of the Telecommunication Department’s order. But experts say the department did not abuse its authority. It merely implemented the law by stopping a media corporation from airing due to an expired franchise.

Some are pointing the finger at Congress, saying it should be blamed because it has the sole power to grant a media franchise. 

More than the issue of legality is the issue of rightness. Is it believable that Duterte had no hand in Congress’ inaction over ABS-CBN’s franchise application? Is it right to suspend the network despite its role as a bringer of news and entertainment to more than 106 million Filipinos?

The decision is now in the hands of 15 justices of the Supreme Court. When they begin to evaluate ABS-CBN’s petition, may they do so not only in terms of what is legal but based on what is right.

Joseph Peter Calleja is a lawyer and editor of Bayard Philippines. He is also a member of the Lay-Religious Alliance of the Assumptionists. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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