Make no mistake. It was still a painful blow, especially to over 11,000 network employees who now find themselves staring at the prospect of being jobless in the midst of a crippling pandemic and a crumbling economy. The closure has also affected countless others whose businesses and livelihood have been directly or indirectly tied to the network’s continued operation. The closure also deprives over 80 million Filipinos – the network’s estimated viewers – the option to choose the broadcast station from which they get their news, information and entertainment.
The hearings conducted by the House Franchise Committee were all for show. They were undisguised inquisitions where some congressmen gleefully twisted the knife even deeper. On hindsight, the House leadership’s motive for calling the hearings became clear: it wanted to claim the sole credit for presiding over the network’s demise which was abruptly stolen by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) when it suddenly yanked the network off the air in May. But for some observers, the entire exercise was intended to satisfy an audience of one. It was an unblemished effort by the speaker to ingratiate himself to the national leadership.
By gutting ABS-CBN, the House leadership again displayed its willingness to bend its knees to the executive. The congressmen may have pulled the trigger but the loaded gun was handed them early on. And whatever the leadership wants, the leadership gets.
The conduct of the hearings was deplorable. The demeanor of some congressmen even more so.
After watching a few hearings on television, I was reminded of the Senate sub-committee hearings conducted against me and my family. The senators availed themselves of the mantle of immunity to vilify and malign us. They made unfounded and even utterly false statements. They came to the hearings not to listen, but to intimidate and harangue. It was a sham proceeding, with a pre-determined ending.
The current speaker was one of the senator-inquisitors. And his demeanor during those Senate sub-committee hearings obviously served as a model for the congressmen who skewered the network’s officials. If these legislators were intolerant and rude, it’s because their language and demeanor were modelled after the language and demeanor of the speaker.
The question now arises: do the votes of these congressmen reflect the sentiments of their constituents? That is doubtful. According to the most recent Social Weather Stations (SWS), survey, 75 percent of Filipinos wanted Congress to renew the network’s franchise. The survey also revealed that 56 percent agreed that denying the franchise was a blow to press freedom. Clearly, the public’s sentiment was not reflected in the votes of the 70 congressmen who voted to deny the franchise. There have been claims made in social media, many of them unsavory, implying that certain incentives were offered to secure the votes. But until concrete evidence is provided, this remains speculation, no matter how enticingly credible they made be.
But there are bigger issues involved. With this act of obeisance, the House has become complicit in the assault on freedom of expression and the Constitution.
As I have said before, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression – press freedom in particular — takes precedence over the hurt feeling of elected officials. In the case of ABS-CBN, the pursuit of a personal agenda carried with it grave political and Constitutional repercussions.
One must also not lose sight of the timing of the network’s execution. Like the Anti-Terror Law, the cruel deed was done in the midst of a pandemic, under an atmosphere of anxiety and fear that all but pre-empts the staging of mass protest actions. It is a disturbing pattern not unique to the Philippines, but in other countries as well.
In the wake of widespread indignation, the speaker has asked the public to “read and respect” the committee’s controversial vote, and afterwards “move forward.” On its face, the appeal sounds hollow, but it may find resonance in another context. Yes we may move forward. But not to forget, but to remember and resist.