Did Malacañang say the press is free?

Miriam Grace A. Go
Did Malacañang say the press is free?
President Duterte’s threat to ABS-CBN contradicts his claim

He has made the threat at least twice before, in 2017 and 2018. But the 3rd time, he was more emphatic: “Ang iyong franchise mag-end next year. If you expect ma-renew yan, Im sorry. I will see to it that you’re out.” (Your franchise will end next year. If you expect it to be renewed, I’m sorry. I will see to it that you’re out.) 

Rodrigo Duterte has made that threat against ABS-CBN practically every year since he became president. There are no efforts on his part to hide or disguise the reason he’s doing this: it’s because of a grudge he has held against the network since the 2016 presidential campaign.  

Duterte’s version of the story is that ABS-CBN refused to air his political advertisements during the campaign. In an interview on April 17, 2017, Pia Ranada and I asked Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, who was Duterte’s campaign finance manager, if it was true they had difficulty placing ads with the network. He said: “We deposited P20 million. When it was over, we checked and only worth P10 million came out.”

Dominguez told us he didn’t know if the P10 million was returned through their advertising agency, and he wasn’t sure either if ABS made any official explanation to the agency or whomever in the campaign why they didn’t air the ads. He didn’t bother to find out.

While it looks like a business transaction gone bad between a network and a client, we in the media still consider the President’s avowed intention to close down ABS-CBN as an attack on the press. Why? Because a business contract, when allegedly not honored, can be rectified through legal process – and I mean proper legal remedies, not contrived cases to get back at critical media. Any attempt to settle scores outside of that is personal and political vendetta, declared and made from an official platform that indicates state resources can, and will be, deployed. (READ: Duterte’s ace against ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ biggest network) 

In this case, we have the elements of abuse of power at play. Duterte says, “I will see to it.” Strictly speaking, he cannot order the non-renewal of a broadcast franchise. Franchises like this are legislated by Congress. That the President sounds so certain in his threat is an admission that he will make a rubber stamp out of the supposedly co-equal and independent branch of government that is the legislature. 

His defeated running mate, Alan Peter Cayetano, is now Speaker of the House of Representatives, and one of his earliest pronouncements as head of the lower chamber is that he also has a “personal complaint” against ABS-CBN. After that, any supposed reassurance from Cayetano that he would give the franchise renewal bill due course was already suspect. And, what do we know? Just today, Wednesday, December 4, he said they wouldn’t tackle the bill anymore before they go on Christmas break. 

ABS-CBN chairman Eugenio 'Gabby' Lopez III meets with President Rodrigo Duterte in Malacañang in 2018. Malacañang file photo

Cayetano says they will have enough time to tackle the ABS-CBN franchise renewal bill in January and February 2020. The current franchise expires in March. (Any decent businessman will tell you, this is not how businesses are run – getting into a new year with everything tentative – unless, of course, Cayetano thinks that big corporations are run the way some private foundation dispensing taxpayers’ money hosts regional games.)  

We can only hope against hope that the committee on legislative franchises will indeed be able to tackle the measure in time. The House website says there are 6 or 7 bills seeking to grant ABS-CBN another 25-year franchise, but there are more than 20 other franchise renewal bills for various broadcast stations, almost all of them in the provinces.  

It is unfortunate that a considerable segment of the public don’t seem to understand that the powers that be can kill press freedom and, as a consequence, stifle democracy, in many creative ways. It’s not just by literally shooting the messenger when they don’t like what the media digs up against them. (As of 2017, the Philippines is the “deadliest country” in Asia for journalists. As of 2019, we have the most number of unresolved killings of journalists in the world.) 

Squeezing a media entity financially is a sure way to cripple its editorial operations and independence. Rappler, for instance, has spent millions of pesos on bail and travel bonds because of nearly a dozen live cases filed by government offices and Duterte’s allies and supporters against us. A tax case was pursued against the owners of the Inquirer. News sites that publish reports unfavorable to the government and its allies are “persuaded” to take down those reports – sometimes, not by the editors but by business executives or corporate lawyers.  

When the journalists stand their ground, the President calls them names, like foul-smelling people and “every inch a prostitute,” his favored blogger and one-time Palace communications executive christens the practitioners “presstitutes.” When recognition from around the globe comes to the journalists who excel and fight, the presidential spokesperson spins it to say it’s proof that press freedom is “robust” under Duterte. When international support floods in for the Philippine media, the Salvador Panelo shrugs his shoulder and say, we’re enjoying our supposed fame.

Yet another way to attack the media is to make them targets of the orchestrated vitriol from the online armies that the President’s camp and his allies are known to maintain. They threaten or wish us harm, rape, death. They incite blind followers to attack our offices. Rappler wrote about the weaponization of the internet as early as 2016 (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), but the latest attacks were unleashed when the media started reporting on the blunders of a Cayetano-led committee in preparing for the ongoing Southeast Asian Games. (Read also my past two newsletters tackling the issue: Bloated SEA Games budget and other exposés and Reporting on the SEA Games fiasco.)

Some observers taunt the media, asking why we’re raising a howl over the potential closure of ABS-CBN, when there are other media entities that would be left to bring the news to the public.  

Aside from the fact that broadcast stations reporting the issues and voices of communities across the country are in danger of being shut down, the issues here are abuse of state power and media independence. When a giant network is taken down, the smaller ones would be helpless targets. When a state-sponsored threat is carried out on one media entity that otherwise had the resources to put up a fight, the weaker ones can cower and cave in or just fold up. When the fourth estate is silenced, the ordinary citizens are next. – Rappler.com 

Until next Wednesday! Email me your thoughts at miriamgracego@rappler.com. If you want to help Rappler pursue in-depth reports on specific sectors and issues, you can donate to our investigative fund here. You can check out the conversations I engage in on Twitter @miriamgracego and follow the stories I share on Facebook.  


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Miriam Grace A. Go

MIriam Grace A Go’s areas of interest are local governance, campaigns and elections, and anything Japanese.