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Editorial Opinion

Freedom disarmed

Yesterday, February 24, the Senate held a hearing on the renewal of ABS-CBN’s media franchise and its alleged violations of the conditions stipulated in Republic Act 7966, the law that allows it to operate as a broadcasting company. Two weeks prior, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a quo warranto petition before the Supreme Court seeking to revoke the media giant’s license on what he claimed were supposed “abuses” of their franchise. Among his claims were the ABS-CBN’s violation on foreign ownership restrictions when it issued Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDR) to foreigners.

Tax evasion claims later resurfaced after the petition was filed, while President Rodrigo Duterte had for years chided the company for not airing his campaign advertisements during the 2016 elections. When support for the company began pouring online, Calida asked the Supreme Court to issue a gag order, claiming that the network had “engaged in propaganda”.

While largely baseless accusations have been thrown in an attempt to silence the media company, what this situation highlights more importantly is how the current administration has actively used the law to its own benefit. Hidden behind the premise of upholding accountability, legal measures have instead been used by government officials to suppress dissent.

The government weaponizing law is nothing new. Aside from ABS-CBN, other critics of the Duterte administration have also fallen victim to this tactic. Rappler and its Chief Executive Officer, Maria Ressa, are swamped with court cases, one of them also involving PDRs. Former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was evicted from her judiciary seat on a quo warranto petition, while Sen. Leila de Lima has been detained for three years on drug trafficking charges that have yet to be resolved in court. Other critics, meanwhile, are currently facing sedition charges. 

But if there is one thing that is certain about accusations, they rarely hold water, a fact that the recent hearing revealed. Representatives from the Bureau of Internal Revenue said that ABS-CBN regularly filed its taxes, while the Securities and Exchange Commission stated that the media company complied with regulations. 

Perhaps the only accusation with merit was on the issue of Duterte’s campaign advertisements. The media company clarified that it was unable to secure airtime for the President’s local advertisements due to time slot reservations. Nonetheless, the National Telecommunications Commission said that any violations concerning pay-per-view services, should these be confirmed, would not be severe enough to warrant revoking the license. The point is moot.

The hearing, while reaching no definitive conclusion as of press time, exposed holes in the arguments made against the franchise renewal, suggesting that the cause for the quo warranto petition was less about justice or legal accountability, and more so a product borne out of personal interest and political intent.

It appears then as another attempt to stifle press freedom, yet the institutions being attacked do not end here. This situation has turned power against power, as if to say there can only be one atop the hierarchy—that the other must concede, especially if the supposedly stronger side has been discredited because of the other party’s actions, and especially if they can manipulate the rule of law to work in their favor.

And if they can, in fact, weaponize the law in this manner—against an already strong “opponent”—it is even more concerning to consider how power and authority can turn the law, among several other things like social media, against the common people, and most especially the oppressed, that it should instead be serving.

If, while seeking justice, one finds that the very system meant to uphold righteousness and equality is instead subject to manipulation by larger forces to perpetuate fear and oppression—there emerges questions about the lawfulness of the Philippine Constitution and whether the President’s ego can overrule any legislation. 

How power structures preserve their authority is nothing new, with the Marcos dictatorship and Martial Law being the most infamous example of an orchestrated attempt to suppress democracy. But, in the end, resistance prevailed. On the 34th anniversary of the EDSA People Power Revolution comes a stark reminder that opposition pays no heed to the weapons used to intimidate. People will continue to take to the streets if they feel they are oppressed.

As if mirroring the past, the message dispatched now seems quite clear: dissent, disobey, commit even a small act of treason, and expect a stripping of whatever power and social position one may hold. The response, however, perhaps should be made even clearer—there are those who witness and will not be silent; there are those who will rise against, even within the confines of a commandeered system.

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