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What’s really at stake in ABS-CBN issue

/ 04:06 AM February 25, 2020

Last Friday, at the height of the biggest protest against the shutdown of the ABS-CBN network, Mocha Uson, the government-salaried propagandist and failed party-list candidate, tweeted: “Naku libo libo ang dumagsa sa ABSCBN babagsak na ang pamahalaang Duterte,” followed by a parade of sarcastic emojis.

A quick translation: “Oh, wow. Thousands have thronged ABS-CBN. The Duterte administration is about to fall.”

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This joke purported to make light of the street action outside ABS-CBN headquarters, but in fact it was an act of bravado, revealing through its end-game scenario the biggest fear of the Duterte administration’s die-hard supporters: That it will lose its popularity, and fall from power.

But it is a mistake to think that growing public support for ABS-CBN would lead to the collapse of the Duterte administration. Unless the administration has been made extraordinarily brittle by its incompetence and infighting, it will limp to its appointed end in 2022.

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In the first place, ouster is not even an objective of the Friday street protests. Started as “Black Friday” assemblies to defend press freedom, they have since evolved, to “Red Friday” (to coincide with Valentine’s Day), to last week’s “Love and light for press freedom” rally which drew some of the network’s (and the country’s) biggest celebrities. They are meant to demonstrate support for the largest newsroom in the country, and by extension to the network as a whole. The possibility that they will continue to grow bigger, drawing even more thousands every Friday, is real.

Secondly, taking an anti-Duterte position is not necessary for one to support the renewal of ABS-CBN’s legislative franchise. Whether it is to protect the means of livelihood for thousands of employees, talents, and suppliers, or to recognize the importance of millions of fans, or to defend the cause of press freedom, it is entirely possible for a Duterte supporter to come to the network’s defense. Unexpected case in point, one of many which we can glean from the pellucid clarity of yesterday’s Senate hearing: Sen. Manny Pacquiao.

Uson’s mock-exaggerated response, then, betrays the fears of those riding the tiger of popularity; they see a strong mass action, with the potential for even greater public support, and crack jokes about the end of the ride.

But even those supporting ABS-CBN’s bid for franchise renewal and defending the work of ABS-CBN journalists, and of other journalists harassed by the Duterte administration, also make a mistake when they question the credentials of those who joined the rallies late.

Some anti-Duterte critics may wish for an early end to the Duterte regime, but they would be wrong to turn the ABS-CBN issue into a battering ram against the government. The real issue is press freedom: the ability of the news media to report and comment on events as they see fit—independent of the powers-that-be, dedicated to the processes of verification, loyal only to the citizens who form its audience.

It may have taken some time before more Filipinos recognized the Duterte administration’s pattern of hostility against outspoken media organizations—including the Inquirer, Vera Files, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and especially Rappler—but that does not mean their belated defense of ABS-CBN should not be warmly welcomed.

And if the Juan-come-latelys are not fully aligned with the opposition, that does not mean they are not valuable allies—only tactical, yes, but allies just the same.

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I wish to be clear: It is possible that the ABS-CBN issue may turn out to be a battering ram. But it will not be by design, but rather by circumstance. Yesterday’s hearing at the Senate showed clearly that the Duterte administration’s entire case against ABS-CBN is not based on tax deficiencies, violations of outdated regulations, labor exploitation, or other corporate chicanery. Sen. Bong Go, assuming his role as the President’s real mouthpiece, gave the real reason.

“Kung masama ka kay Pangulo, mas maging masama siya sa ’yo. Kung mabait ka kay pangulo, mas mabait siya sa ’yo.” A rough-and-ready translation: “If you act badly against the President, he will act even more badly against you. If you are nice to him, he will be nicer to you.”

There it is: transactional politics. The Duterte administration’s entire case against ABS-CBN is based on the President’s hurt feelings. But in our democratic project, the role of the free press is precisely to check against the abuse of power—including presidential vendetta.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: ABS-CBN franchise, john Nery, Mocha Uson, Newsstand, Rodrigo Duterte
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