Senators say ABS-CBN case sets a precedent: 'Toe the line or get shut down'

Senators slammed the "unforgiving" decision of the House legislative franchises panel to deny ABS-CBN a franchise – which, they said, sets a dangerous precedent for other media entities.

Senator Risa Hontiveros on Friday, July 10, pinned the blame on the Duterte administration which "allowed politicking" in legislative franchise applications. Several times in the past, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to shut down ABS-CBN's operations, and the government eventually did on May 5.

"The political persecution of ABS-CBN sends a chilling message to Filipino media practitioners and journalists: toe the line or get shut down," the opposition senator said.

"May takot at pagbabanta ang mensaheng inihahatid ng gobyerno: Kapag kaaway ka, puwede kang ipasara. (There's fear and threat in the messaging of the government: If you're an enemy, you can be shut down)," Hontiveros added. (READ: A year later, the House remains Duterte’s loyal defender)

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said that he's convinced that the media giant did one thing: "The only fault of ABS-CBN is it stepped on some powerful political toes, hence the sword has been unleashed on it."

"The sword of Damocles will continue to hang perilously over other media networks. Both the legislators and the executive can wield the sword at their whim and caprice. This is when democracy starts to weaken," the minority leader warned.

'Personal interests over the public'

Senators also questioned the government's plan, given the possible mass employment that the rejection will generate, no thanks to the House decision. ABS-CBN has over 11,000 workers around the country – thousands of whom risk unemployment starting August.

In the middle of a pandemic, thousands of Filipinos – especially those in rural areas – who rely on ABS-CBN for news are also affected by the continued shutdown of the network.

Instead of thinking of public interest, Hontiveros said that congressmen committed to settling personal scores. During the marathon House hearings, several House lawmakers aired their complaints against ABS-CBN.

Senator Francis Pangilinan said that the decision to deny the network a franchise only showed that the administration doesn't care about the public. (READ: What's taking Congress so long to tackle ABS-CBN's franchise?)

"Ito'y patunay na wala silang pakialam sa karaniwang tao. Patunay na interes ng iilan at hindi ng taumbayan ang inuuna," he said. (It's proof that the government does not care about normal people. The interest of the few trumps, instead of prioritizing the public.)

Linking it to the pandemic, Pangilinan asked: "Ito ba ay patunay na walang maaasahan ang maliliit sa administrasyon sa gitna ng pinakamatinding krisis ng ating henerasyon?" (Is it proof that the marginalized cannot rely on this administration in the middle of the worst crisis of our generation?)

Thousands possibly jobless

With the House panel voting against granting ABS-CBN a franchise, the media network has two options: to hope that a congressman would file an appeal on its behalf, or wait until 2022 to apply for a new franchise. (Scenarios: What happens to ABS-CBN franchise after House panel vote?)

Senators Nancy Binay and Joel Villanueva questioned the government's plan about the mass unemployment that the decision will cause.

"I can only ask our leaders what their plans are for the thousands of workers who have lost their jobs. Sa panahon ngayon, lalong kailangan maramdaman ng mamamayan ang malasakit mula sa pamahalaan. (At this time, the public all the more needs to feel that the government empathizes with them)," Binay said.

For Villanueva, the pandemic has already forced 7.3 million Filipinos into unemployment and yet more would be unemployed again because of a decision that could have been otherwise avoided.

"Losing a job at this point in time is a serious problem not only to the 11,000 workers of ABS-CBN but to their respective families and loved ones. We should all realize that it's a serious problem of this nation. It's now everyone's problem," Villanueva said.

The lower chamber did not immediately act on ABS-CBN's franchise which lapsed on May 4. Without a franchise, the National Telecommunications Commission ordered the closure of ABS-CBN’s television and radio operations, as well as the broadcast of its Sky Direct and TVPlus channels.

On May 13, the House had passed a bill on 2nd reading granting the network a provisional franchise, but recalled it days later. – Rappler.com

Here are more stories about the denial of the ABC-CBN franchise:

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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