ABS-CBN news and talk show host Karen Davila recently had Malacanang Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo as her guest on ANC to discuss the franchise renewal of the TV network that employs her. It’s fair to say that she struggled to achieve her goal — to pin the blame on President Rodrigo Duterte over the possibility that the network could be shut down when its franchise to use their allocated public radio frequency doesn’t get renewed before it expires on the 30th March 2020.
Davila at one point asked Panelo why Congress doesn’t want to hear or tackle ABS-CBN’s franchise issue even though Duterte already said that Congress should tackle it. Panelo said “I don’t know. You should ask them”. Davila seemed baffled as to why the Speaker of the House of Representative doesn’t take the cue from the President. But, to that, Panelo also expressed bafflement as to why Congress has to wait for the President’s cue before it does its job. Less than five minutes into the program, it was already obvious the questions Davila would be throwing at Panelo were going to be silly and repetitive.
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No offense to Davila, but the irony in her arguments seems to fly over her head. First, she implies that Duterte is dictating his wishes on Congress, then she answers her own question with a question: “Why is Congress not tackling the franchise issue?”
Panelo tried his best to explain to Davila that ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal to operate is in the hands of Congress and not in the President’s. It was clear that Davila either (1) had an agenda to blame the hold up on Duterte or (2) just couldn’t get the concept of separation of functions of the three independent branches of government. Either way, the interview was definitely not going her way at this point.
Davila soldiered on nonetheless and tried to paint the non-renewal as an attack on press freedom but when asked by Panelo why she believed it so, she couldn’t explain herself. Panelo reminded her that there are other networks that are still free to operate and deliver the news. Members of mainstream media keep insisting that Duterte is trying to stifle dissent while they continue to criticise him without consequences. They can’t see why their credibility is suffering as a result of inconsistencies like these.
The President may have his own beef with the owners, but that is a separate issue. To be sure, it is a fact that ABS-CBN got on Duterte’s bad side when the network failed to air P2 million worth of regional campaign ads when he was still campaigning for the Presidency. Panelo stressed that the President wants to shut down the network’s fraudulent practices such as those.
Panelo then mentioned the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against ABS-CBN, which the network also violated. A quick Google search would show that then Vice Presidential candidate Alan Peter Cayetano who is the current Speaker of the House sought the TRO a day after ABS-CBN began airing the anti-Duterte ad paid for by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, which showed clips of Duterte cursing, uttering his controversial rape remark, and saying he is ready to kill. In between these clips, various children were shown criticizing Duterte for his behavior. Panelo asserted that it was, in fact, Duterte who is a victim of ABS-CBN’s dishonest activities.
The problem with ABS-CBN owners is that they were blatant with their partisan politics and weren’t wise enough to get on Duterte’s good side even after he won the Presidency. This is a hard lesson for ABS-CBN. One has to make sure one has her affairs in order before pissing off someone powerful. Otherwise, they are toast. ABS-CBN learned this the hard way when the Solicitor General did his due diligence and decided to run a fine-toothed comb through its affairs.
According to the Quo Warranto filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida to the Supreme Court, the owners allegedly violated the law specifically with their unlawful use of frequencies reserved for free-to-air broadcasting and allowing illegal foreign investment in their business.
Unlawful use of frequencies reserved for free-to-air broadcasting
ABS-CBN is accused of charging fees to users accessing content using radio frequencies reserved for broadcasting free-to-air content “in free and unencrypted form requiring no subscription, other than on-going cost or reception fee.” Section 77 of the document lists instances where ABS-CBN used these frequencies to broadcast pay-per-view content. Counted among these broadcasts are various boxing matches, the 2019 ABS-CBN Ball, and others all accessible for fees collected by ABS-CBN. It is reiterated in Section 84 that “ABS-CBN Corporation has no lawful authority to utilize the free-to-air signals to collect fees from the viewing public…”
Illegal foreign ownership
Issuance of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) to foreign entities, even by ABS Holdings which, some argue, is an entity apart and different to ABS-CBN Corporation, constitutes an act that, “for all intents and purposes allowed foreigners to influence and participate in the mass media enterorise of the Philippines…” The petitioner charges, as such, that, according to Section 141…
ABS Holding’ issuance of PDRs to non-Filipino citizens is a scheme employed making it appear that the share remain with the Filipino corporation while granting influence over the mass media enterprise to foreign investors. A foreign investor in this case may validly profit from a mass media corporation with a foreign equity restriction.
Is is further pointed out in Section 142…
This scheme is not only prohibited by the 1987 Constitution but criminal liability is also imposed on those who violate foreign equity restrictions and evade nationalization laws of the Philippines through various modes of proxy arrangement, making it appear as legal, but the entirety of the arrangement is to accomplish a transation not allowed under Philippine laws.
ABS-CBN with all its star power, money, and resources could not fix its problems before the authorities found the gaping hole in their business that is on exhibit today. What’s really baffling to me is why Congress didn’t tackle the franchise renewal months before. This issue has been going on for years but they did nothing to fast-track it. Rumour has it that some congressmen lack “motivation”. Some are suggesting that they are waiting for some grease money from the owners before “doing their jobs”. This is not too-farfetched because they know that the owners are cashed-up. Desperate people do extra-ordinary things when it is crunch time.
Unfortunately for ABS-CBN, time is running out. Even if Congress tackles the franchise issue now, the Quo Warranto could squash the renewal if the Supreme Court rules the owners violated the law. They are essentially toast.
In life, things are not always what they seem.