House ruling on ABS-CBN franchise could signal media control — UP prof
MANILA, Philippines — The defeat of ABS-CBN’s franchise application in the House of Representatives might mean more restraints on press freedom in the Philippines, including the possible resurrection of the “right-of-reply” bill, according to a University of the Philippines journalism professor.
UP Prof. Danilo Arao said the House inquiry that doomed ABS-CBN’s chances of reopening its shuttered radio and TV operations betrayed the lawmakers’ “skewed understanding” of journalism that could lead to further attempts to control news media.
“What’s worrying for me is it seems Congress would want to control media content,” he told the Inquirer by phone on Saturday.
“So we’re treading on very dangerous ground here because we might see a barrage of House bills in the near future talking about the need to control media,” Arao said.
ABS-CBN’s radio and TV operations were shut down on May 5, a day after its franchise expired. The network had been hoping to secure a new 25-year license through the House legislative franchises panel but its bid was defeated in a 70-11 vote on July 10.
Arao said he was particularly concerned about the direction of the discussion on the 12th day of the inquiry on July 6 when the House committee focused on ABS-CBN’s supposed biased coverage.
It was during that hearing when several lawmakers skewered ABS-CBN over supposed bias in its reporting, prompting ABS-CBN president and CEO Carlo Katigbak to promise to give airtime to all public officials for any news story involving them.
“As of today, I would like to make a public commitment: Any public official will be given a chance to air their side on ABS-CBN,” Katigbak told the panel.
“This is a commitment by the owners and the managers of ABS-CBN,” he said.
But Arao said he was uncomfortable with that commitment as it resembled right-of-reply.
The Philippines has no right-of-reply law, which requires news organizations to give equal space or airtime to all parties in their coverage.
Lawmakers have time and again attempted the pass such a bill to the objections of media groups, who consider it an unconstitutional restraint on press freedom.
Arao said it appeared that the House members had poor understanding of journalistic values.
“They were talking about balance in the context of equal space or airtime, under the right-of-reply bill, which was opposed by journalists and news organizations,” he said.
In spite of Arao’s concerns, the franchise committee did not actually include ABS-CBN’s supposed biased reporting on the list of issues it considered in rejecting the network’s application.
“This committee will not make a finding on the alleged biased reporting and the individual complaints of the members… The principles of press freedom, fair comment, and self-regulation of media militate against any attempt at such ruling,” it said.
The panel adopted most of the other allegations, from the skirting of the constitutional ban on foreign ownership of mass media through the issuance of Philippine depositary receipts and the dual citizenship of its chair emeritus Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III to unfair labor practices and tax avoidance.
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