Why should the quo warranto case filed on Feb. 10 by Solicitor General Jose Calida seeking the forfeiture of the ABS-CBN franchise be viewed merely as a legal process intended to curb the radio-TV network’s alleged “abusive practices,” and not as an assault on press freedom?
When, despite Salvador Panelo’s straight-faced insistence that his boss had nothing to do with Calida’s action, President Duterte is on undeniable record that he wants ABS-CBN shuttered and that he would “see to it that you’re out”?
The pattern is clear except to those who refuse to see, and the pattern extends all the way to when Ferdinand Marcos began to make short shrift of cherished freedoms in the course of instituting the principle of the “deliberately guided press” — that is to say, making the press “a partner of government in the pursuit of national development.”
As John A. Lent wrote in a paper on the Philippine media under martial law, Marcos sought to bring the press under control in a series of critical steps, including setting up a comprehensive media network that engaged in glorifying his administration and in attacking certain journalists.
Marcos called the newspapers “whiners, gripers and time-wasters” — a theme that then Press Secretary Francisco Tatad amplified on at a press forum in August-September 1971, saying in part that there were “distortion, misrepresentation, private management, private censorship and downright falsification of the news” but “little, if at all, worthwhile effort to cure them,” as well as “a dangerous arrogance which, as a matter of policy, refuses to rectify error, defamation, or abuse willfully committed against private reputations or official integrity in public office…”
Criticism, no matter how valid, of the Marcos regime and its officials was deemed nothing less than calumny, so that in the estimation of the journalist Amando Doronila at the same press forum: “In the self-serving assertion of government, a free press is falsely equated with irresponsibility, subversion, and even treason.”
Do all these sound weirdly familiar, as in a case of déjà vu? They should. (For just one thing: If, as Lent wrote, the budget of the Marcos media centers supposedly equaled “that of at least four of the six major dailies of the Philippines” then, the 2020 funding of the current Presidential Communications Operations Office amounts to a shocking P1,693,882,000.)
ABS-CBN, along with other media offices on the outs with the Duterte administration, has been at the receiving end of its displeasure, so that bills seeking the renewal of its franchise for the next 25 years have languished at the House of Representatives in a jarring display of the clout of the administration’s supermajority.
Solicitor General Calida himself declares a certain, alarming, intention of the government in his petition filed at the Supreme Court: “The scarcity of radio frequencies has made it necessary for the government to step in and allocate frequencies to competing broadcasters. In undertaking that function, the government is compelled to decide which of the competing applicants are worthy of frequency application. It is through that role that it becomes legally viable for the government to impose its own values and goals through a regulatory regime that extends beyond the assignation of frequencies notwithstanding the free expression guarantees enjoyed by broadcasters.”
It’s as clear a declaration as any of what the government intends to do despite the constitutional provisions protecting the (ever-shrinking) democratic space.
And yet, perversely, in a speech on Feb. 12 at an oath-taking ceremony, the President issued a challenge to the newly elected officers and trustees of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas.
“Report to the public because you owe it to the republic to inform them,” he was quoted as saying in a mix of Filipino and English. “I’m just asking you to simply [report] the truth. If the truth will destroy me, so be it. Don’t think twice even if the truth will destroy me. That’s the price of being in public service.”
But he warned that his administration would not tolerate “any abuse” of the freedom of the press: “While our Constitution upholds freedom of the press, the function of broadcast is a privilege granted by the government. It is imbued with the best interest of the people. And we will not tolerate any abuse of that privilege.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.