Four Philippine business groups are banking on Congress to make the right decision on press freedom, as the Duterte administration moves to shut down ABS-CBN Corp, the largest broadcast company in the country.
They released a joint statement on Tuesday, the same day the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) asked for a gag order against the network and its stars, barring them from discussing a Supreme Court case that threatens ABS-CBN’s existence.
The groups are the Makati Business Club, Management Association of the Philippines, Institute for Solidarity in Asia and Institute of Corporate Directors.
“We, the undersigned business organisations, express our strong support for a balanced, fair and timely consideration of the bills filed by several lawmakers on the renewal of ABS-CBN Corp’s broadcasting franchise,” they said.
The statement stopped short of explicitly backing a growing movement to preserve ABS-CBN, not because of its merits as a broadcast company but because the issue had become a question of press freedom in the time of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Lawmakers, the business groups said, should take into account that the question of whether to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise would stand on the “bedrock issues of media freedom and free enterprise”.
Duterte does not hide his disdain for the TV network, whose franchise will end next month. However, some members of his Cabinet are divided on the implications of shutting down the company, which, despite its imperfections, plays a key role in public affairs and national culture.
Secretary of Finance Carlos Dominguez III said the Duterte administration would be upholding the rule of law if the Supreme Court ruled that ABS-CBN violated constitutional restrictions and franchise rules.
Asked if closing down ABS-CBN may affect investor sentiment, Dominguez replied: “A lawsuit has been filed, right? There’s a claim by the OSG that there’s a violation of the regulations and it might be a constitutional violation.”
“I think if that’s proven, the investors will say: ‘Oh, these guys have been upholding the rule of law,’” Dominguez said on the sidelines of the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s (BIR’s) 2020 tax campaign kick-off.
BIR deputy commissioner Arnel Guballa said a sister company of ABS-CBN was facing a case in the Court of Tax Appeals.
Secretary of Socioeconomic Planning Ernesto Pernia, the government’s chief economist, said the move could hurt investor confidence in the Philippines, noting that he “will always favour more diversity, more openness [and] progressive ideas”.
Department of Trade and Industry secretary Ramon Lopez tried to play down the issue on Monday night, saying someone else could take over the franchise. He clarified though that he was not involved in the situation.
At the Senate, Senator Ronald Dela Rosa, a former national police chief, said the OSG had the basis to seek a gag order, noting that ABS-CBN could shape public opinion anytime it wanted to.
Asked if he would take into consideration the 11,000 people who could lose their jobs should the network fail to get a new franchise, Dela Rosa said: “What is 11,000 compared to the whole Filipino nation, which a company had long taken advantage of if this is proved in the hearing?”
With the threat of a gag order hanging over ABS-CBN, Senator Grace Poe said she was planning to move to an earlier date, or before February 27, the hearing on the franchise of the network, which the House of Representatives has refused to act on.
Should the hearing take place while the submission of comments to the OSG motion is pending, Poe said there would be no Supreme Court ruling that the resource persons could violate.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said a gag order would not prohibit the Senate from requiring ABS-CBN executives and other resource persons to appear at the hearing and testify.
At the House, Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Isagani Zarate said Calida’s latest petition was meant to stem the mounting criticisms against the quo warranto case he filed earlier to have the network’s franchise revoked.
However, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano argued that ABS-CBN’s franchise was not totally a press freedom issue.
“If the network was a purely online content provider or even a traditional printed newspaper they would not even need a franchise from the government to operate.
“This clearly shows that this matter has not, nor has it ever been, purely an issue of free speech or freedom of the press.
“However, when corporations use airwaves and broadcast frequencies – resources that are rightly owned by the people – these franchises come with serious responsibilities and accountabilities to the public,” Cayetano said.
PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK