Majority disturbed by ‘death’ of ABS-CBN

Published July 13, 2020, 10:00 PM

by Zoilo "Bingo" P. Dejaresco III

The “death sentence” inflicted on ABS-CBN (operating since the 1950s) by a 70-11 vote for franchise denial by Congress did not sit well with 3 of every 4 Filipinos.

Because days before the “murder,” a SWS survey said 76 percent (10 percent undecided) of Filipinos nationwide believed in their hearts that the network deserved a new 25-year franchise.  No, it was not just “entertainment” they will miss (as Sec. Harry Roque says) but 57 percent (15 percent undecided), SWS reported, likewise thought that not granting it a new franchise was “a blow to press freedom.”     

 Like in an impeachment trial, the congressional 13-day franchise discussion was more like the workings of a political rather than a judicial body.                            

Because, if it was acting as a legal body, then Congress should have given weight to those agencies (which under the law) like the SEC, BIR, Bureau of Immigration, DOLE, PEZA, NTC (even), MTCRB are the final arbiters of those controversial issues that the network has been accused of.

Here are some other observations of Juan de la Cruz, a non-lawyer:

Since it was declared that “dual citizenship means one is 100% Filipino” on the issue of the citizenship of chairman Gabby Lopez, Congress proceeded to question the so-called authenticity of the birth certificates of his two parents.

But Meralco, the Manila Chronicle and ABS-CBN, utilities and media firms, (only allowed to be owned fully by Filipinos) have been in existence since the 1950s.

Was Congress, therefore, implying that all the past governments, congresses and supreme courts – for the last 70 years or so, 1950-2020, were all blind to this so-called “violation” as to the citizenship of the Lopez parents (whose family owned majority of these companies)?

 At one point in the congressional hearing, it was asked if the Lopezes should not have been asked to pay money in order for them to re-acquire ABSCBN (after the EDSA revolt in 1986). 

To the layperson, doing this would seem like the Lopezes lost their car to thieves who for years used it-and when a new LTO declared Lopezes as the real owner- the latter was ordered to now pay “extra” cash for claiming their personal asset that has been stolen and depreciated by years of usage by others

That would be a kind of justice found only on the planet Mars.

Likewise, it was alleged that there is dout as to the real owner of the land titles of ABS-CBN in Quezon City. This is like saying that over these decades while the Lopezes were yearly paying their real estate taxes (as required by law) on these properties- there was no doubt as to their ownership then except now – several decades after? All of a sudden? That defies human logic.

ABS-CBN was accused of having diversified into related media businesses when there were still no specific guidelines on the same, as admitted by the NTC itself, whereinto a layman’s mind “what is not prohibited by law, is allowed.” 

In another matter, the network was accused of ceding “ownership” of the media to foreigners by accepting FDRs owned by foreigners (practiced by many companies including rival networks). With Juan’s basic knowledge of corporate protocol, “control” is exercised almost solely- at the Board of Directors or the Executive Committee levels- where the FDR owners were never represented. No dividends were also ever declared to the FDR owners unlike the real Filipino equity owners of the network over the years.

 The provision that the foreign FDRs can be converted into equity could become legally operable only when a law is finally passed allowing foreign ownership of media here-not before that.

In the apex of pettiness, it was mentioned- that in two cited years, ABS-CBN only paid half a billion pesos per year while a rival network paid one billion pesos in taxes per year in similar years. Yet, it was a sworn statement of the BIR  which stated in the hearings that the total taxes paid by ABS-CBN from 2015 to 2019 amounted to P15-Billion total. That is an average tax payment of P 2.5 Billion a year.

Most people know that in  PEZA- investors are incentivized by the government with tax shelters so that they would pitch camps therein. Perhaps all major  Philippine conglomerates and many medium-sized firms have affiliates inside PEZA to enjoy these perfectly legal tax shields – including The Big Dipper of the Lopez Group. 

For this, the group was roundly accused of Tax-avoidance- which by the way, as the name suggests, is not illegal here in the same way that tax evasion is.  Why single out The Big Dipper?

On the issue of labor-management relations- today- Juan knows that there are pending and lists of resolved cases of labor disputes over many years involving almost all companies in the country.  ABS-CBN,, with its large base of over 11,000 employees – by statistical probability- would normally, therefore, have such cases at the DOLE.

Nobody, much less a corporation, is perfect. Such imperfection was proven in the offer of ABS-CBN to return to President Duterte P5-million in poll ad funds which were not aired with the corresponding poll promotion in their media channels in 2016 polls.

 Likewise, in every election, including the 2016 presidential elections, the network (as other networks, too) has always been accused of unfair coverage (some more than others) by all candidates. That all the candidate camps were complaining simply means all of them felt shortchanged.  so the “inequality” of news coverage treatment was universal and not selective.

In fact, it is a credit to Philippine media, that through the years, it has tried to remain as much as possible  to be apolitical (they do not always succeed). To our knowledge  prestigious papers like Time Magazine and the New York Times  even on the eve of elections  actually endorse a specific presidential candidate, as an example, to prove how politically biased American media can be compared to ours.

Of course all of this is water under the Pasig River, so to speak. This is Monday morning quarterbacking as armchair coaches after the game for Congress had already spoken.

We are sure the 70  that voted against and 11 for have their own appreciation of the facts and are ready to answer their district constituencies if they seek reelection in 2022 as to why they voted as they did.

But even if it has legal right over franchises, the legitimacy of a media network is not determinable solely within the halls of Congress.

To us, the real test for a network to stay in business is  the credibility of a media entity (regardless of whatever anyone says) because it implies widespread public acceptance. The fact that ABS-CBN remained, doubtless, the country’s No 1 source of News and Entertainment through these many years means the public believes in their credibility and attempts at excellence to please their audience.

The radio-TV network may have lost its exclusive frequency and the NTC can, therefore award it to the highest bidder. The winner can only hope to capture the imagination and loyalty of a vast chunk of the Filipino audience which ABS-CBN built painstakingly since the 1950s. To the new owners our best of luck wishes.

 For now, the network will have to shed pounds: lay off employees in order to keep the best ones and be in fighting form. With many of the best talents in town (news and entertainment) inside their tent they can “can” shows and find a way (legally) to still reach their audience here and abroad aside from their existing current platforms that cannot be touched by NTC ( cable, internet etc).

 Years from now, who knows, the Lopezes and their band of talents, may again seek a franchise under a more benign political atmosphere and be back to “where it belongs.”

As a media practitioner, we are saddened, of course, that the “free” radio-TV frequency has now been denied access to many of the “Madlang People” who in this horrific era of viruses, joblessness and deaths need a free “elixir” of life in free entertainment and need one more credible option to hear news – so they can effectively combat the challenge of this pandemic crisis.

But, in the end we respect the opinion of the 70, this is a democracy as they should also allow other contrary views. And we still wish ABS-CBN (or what is left of it)  the best.

For in boxing as in life, a knockdown is not a knockout. (Bingo Dejaresco, a financial consultant, media practitioner and book author, is a Life Member and Chair of Broadcast Media of Finex. His views here, however, are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Finex. [email protected]).