In a nation fragmented into 7,641 islands, television is “chewing gum for the eyes” as Henri Peyre would put it. Television brings into isolated and rural households the bright lights and colors, exciting and dramatic events, and information, ideas, and innovations from Metro Manila and the other cities. It is also chewing gum that binds the people together, molding a national consciousness. You know you are Filipino when you’re caught in the cinematic rivalry of Vilma and Nora, or familiar with the movies of Fernando Poe Jr. and KathNiel.
All over the country, people aspire for this chewing gum. If you go to the small towns of the Philippines that are the gateways to rural areas, you will find stacks of old-style analog televisions being sold for less than P1,000. They are obsolete and decrepit, but many rural families dream of being able to afford these television sets. Meantime, the rest of the country is already into digital television.
When the Duterte administration made good its promise to shut down ABS-CBN via the House committee resolution denying the franchise, half of this chewing gum was also denied the nation. It was made partly on the calculation that 11,000 ABS-CBN jobs made up of the artists, talents, technicians, and other employees were dispensable. But this was a narrow supply-side perspective. What was missing was the demand-side reckoning of what the franchise meant to the millions of Filipinos that had made the programs of ABS-CBN part of their daily lives. Radio and television are an essential informational and entertainment scaffolding for the daily routines of homemakers, workers, students, and other people all over the archipelago. This function should not be easy to deny, even if the Duterte administration, bent on acquiring authoritarian powers, denies that the closure of ABS-CBN creates a chilling effect on all other media and advocacy work.
Frankly, the decision to deny the franchise came as no surprise. Like a predictable teleserye, the decision was apparent in the way the committee, with Rep. Rodante Marcoleta as frontliner, meticulously wove through the process of inventorying and documenting all the public and private hurts of various stakeholders in the hands of ABS-CBN, including the politicians themselves. It was as if the public protests, instead of making the committee pause and take heed, goaded the committee to drown their voices with legal and technical minutiae and a rush to denial. The committee resolution flatly denied the connection of the franchise to press freedom, skirting what to the outside world was the crux of the issue.
Protesters found it surreal that Rep. Eric Yap, a Duterte partisan, at some point came out to claim, without any substantiation, that he was offered P200 million by an emissary of ABS-CBN to vote for approval. He then made it look like he was deeply hurt that somebody tried to buy him.
The resolution denied the ABS-CBN franchise and contained a quaint way of delivering the coup de grâce on all bills seeking the franchise for ABS-CBN, applying the term “lay on the table.” When a representative asked what it meant, the curt answer from the secretariat was, “It means kill.” Rep. Michael Defensor quickly interjected that the committee meant to use the euphemism to make the decision on these bills less harsh.
For his part, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said the people questioning the decision should read the report of the technical working group that recommended denial of the franchise. The copious litany against ABS-CBN was designed to be counted rather than weighed.
So, how could the House committee on legislative franchises flatly deny with finality the franchise application of ABS-CBN? After the recent hasty passage of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act, there has emerged an alarming pattern in the way overwhelming pro-administration majorities are so easily and rapidly obtained in these decisions. In the ABS-CBN case, the voting was not even close to reflect the controversy and divisiveness of the issue. The voting was 70 for, 11 against, 1 abstention, 2 inhibitions.
What gives? It tells me Congress has perfected an internal system for incentivizing herd impunity, upon signal from Malacañang, to approve decisions and legislation that run counter to the interests of the people, even where these interests are clearly expressed and based on constitutional principles. As COVID-19 ravages the land, the government ratchets up the nation toward the authoritarian precipice.
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