"How the Lopezes decide this one—whether to stay in or move out of broadcasting—is not a question of press freedom, but one of commercial and political risk appetite."
I should first disclose that Gabby Lopez is a former classmate and former boss of mine (although we parted professional ways under less than good terms). I will always like and respect his family, even if I disagree with their political leanings.
Last week’s House committee decision not to renew the franchise of the Lopezes’ ABS-CBN came as no surprise, not after the President vowed last year that it wouldn’t be renewed. This latest discreet exercise of presidential power should please believers—not me--in the centralization of vast authority within that office and in the national capital.
Obviously, it will also please believers—like me—in Duterte’s agenda, one which is largely (at last count, by over 80 percent) endorsed by the populace. It means the wind is still at his back to complete the rest of his unfinished business—build out infrastructure, continue running down the terrorists and drug syndicates, push foreign policy independence, lately deal with the COVID pandemic, and—hopefully—reform our Constitution.
ABS-CBN got in the way of all that by making their anti-Duterte agenda almost personal. Unlike other, more cautious networks, they chose to use their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms to play hardball. The family’s stubbornness is something they take pride in, going all the way back to the Marcos years.
Of course, the tiger they ride occasionally bites back—as when Gabby’s father landed in jail in 1972, or now that they’ve lost their franchise, nearly half a century later. You make your choices, you take your chances. The more cautious networks today still survive. Arguably, those networks have done better by their shareholders on that account.
* * *
It’s an essentially political face-off that ABS-CBN lost this time—little different from, say, the political contest in 2012 that led to the impeachment of the late Chief Justice Corona, much to the delight of the network. Having said that, though, I must add that the decision of the majority congressmen, as a matter of record, left much to be desired.
One allegation involved “tax avoidance schemes.” The honorables took care to describe these as “questionable and unjust, if not immoral”—but not “illegal.” But if ABS-CBN really ended up paying only one-tenth of the taxes of their nearest competitor—and so long as they didn’t break the law—they were only fulfilling their fiduciary duty to their shareholders. And I would love to meet their tax lawyers.
As for the allegation of “less than exemplary labor practices,” my understanding is that DoLE was among the several government agencies who vouched for the network’s good behavior, on this as well as other charges. The ululations to high heavens by their employees after the decision do not sound like they come from an oppressed workforce.
The remaining three grounds—Gabby’s dual citizenship, the use of PDRs in ABS-CBN’s capital structure, and alleged use of dummies—all arise from the Constitutional prohibition against any foreign investment at all in mass media. It’s also the main issue that’s been raised against Rappler, the network’s online confrere.
The law may have been broken in these cases. But this raises the question: Is this law a good one? This is especially relevant today, when much of our knowledge comes from the borderless Internet, and when new capital and technology could otherwise be brought in by foreign investors into our enfeebled economy. Absent Constitutional restrictions, those investors could include global media companies who could buy out the Lopezes, continue the network’s businesses, and save all those thousands of jobs.
Critics might complain about the danger of being led astray by those foreigners. Which of course begs the question of whether foreigners will in fact be more difficult for government to keep in line, compared to local, politically active oligarchs like….well, the Lopezes themselves. I’m sure the majority congressmen who voted down ABS-CBN would have something to say about that.
* * *
Looking forward, some people have counseled the family not to sell out, but simply bide their time, tread water, and wait for 2022. In this connection, the rumor comes to mind about how they may have decided in 2014, when renewal first came up in Congress, not to press so hard for it (maybe there were millions of reasons involved). Instead, they may have preferred to bide their time, counting on the election of a new president in 2016 who would also be, like PNoy, very much their friend.
Unfortunately, they got Duterte. After 2022, they are likely to face more of the same. How the Lopezes decide this one—whether to stay in or move out of broadcasting—is not a question of press freedom, but one of commercial and political risk appetite. It’s a decision that their minority and public shareholders as well as their various constituencies will expect them to handle better.
Readers can write me at email@example.com.