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ABS-CBN is a campaign issue

/ 05:06 AM July 13, 2021

The rejection a year ago of the franchise renewal application of the ABS-CBN network by the House of Representatives committee on legislative franchises was a political decision; it should have political consequences.

It was political in the barest, most basic sense: It was a display of power, made against the evidence provided by the very government agencies invited by the committee, against clear public opinion in favor of the network. At the end of the lengthy process, involving 12 hearings altogether, one of the three leaders of the anti-ABS-CBN inquisition, Rep. Rodante Marcoleta, summed up the entire proceeding with an unforgettable phrase. Notwithstanding the favorable testimony of the representatives of the various government agencies called to Congress, and the testimony of the network’s own representatives, Marcoleta said, “it is the will of Congress that must be accorded respect.”

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“Killing” the application then (to use another unforgettable quote, this time from Rep. Mike Defensor) was an act of political will, the will of Congress. The 70 congressmen who voted at the committee level to reject a new franchise for the ABS-CBN network wanted it, and willed it to happen.

But fearing the consequences of an obviously unpopular decision, the House of Representatives then under the leadership of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, and now under the leadership of Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, has declined to release the official list of those who voted against the network. Typical conduct in these times: the privileges and perks of power, without the responsibilities.

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But an unofficial list exists, and lawmakers and House insiders alike attest to its accuracy.

The accuracy is important, because the voters who were offended by the naked power play of Congress, caused by President Duterte’s own and often repeated threats to shut down ABS-CBN, should be able to exact accountability at the ballot box.

But taking offense is not enough; the pushback against the 70 perpetrators of what I and others have called “legislative murder” should not be left to chance. There is an ongoing signature campaign to justify a people’s initiative to enact a law granting the ABS-CBN network a new franchise; there are some two million Bayan patrollers—the citizen journalists trained by the network over the years; there are many millions of new subscribers to the different ABS-CBN channels online. These and other supporters of the network can be harnessed to make the politicians who voted unfairly on the franchise issue face political consequences.

The campaign can take the following forms:

First, as platform. All candidates for the House, the Senate, and the presidency should be asked if they commit to a new franchise for the ABS-CBN network at the soonest possible time, in the 19th Congress. This will not only put every candidate on the record; it may well create a momentum for a new franchise.

I realize a campaign pledge can degenerate into a form of costless signaling, more cheap talk. That is a feature, not a bug, of electoral politics. But seeking the reversal of an unjust policy, taking up a popular cause, strengthening press freedom: These are important democratic initiatives in themselves, and if the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise as a campaign platform generates a groundswell of support in the political class, or creates a sense of inevitability in the political calendar, then we should count that as a real gain.

Second, as retribution. Holding politicians to account for their acts of omission or commission is the very nature of the democratic project. That old saying, about elections presenting voters the opportunity to “throw the rascals out,” is not a threat; it is the promise of every election.

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At the same time, not all 70 lawmakers who voted against ABS-CBN are equally vulnerable. To make the promise of democratic elections work to its advantage, the public must organize itself, and then determine who among the 70 or their chosen successor-rascals can be successfully thrown out.

Let the political consequences fall where they may — but before the public aggrieved by the rejection of the ABS-CBN franchise can get even, it must get organized.

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

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TAGS: 2022 national elections, ABS-CBN closure, John Nery, Newsstand
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