What the ABS-CBN franchise issue tells us about democracy

What the ABS-CBN franchise issue tells us about democracy

- in Opinion

It seems almost impossible to imagine a world without ABS CBN. Even as someone who is personally very against the renewal of their franchise, I can admit that it is almost a dystopian fantasy to imagine them gone. It is undoubtedly, even with my personal bias, a cultural institution and part of the modern Filipino identity.

Its presence in the country has formed our popular culture, our celebrity culture, and even fuels the dreams of many star hopefuls. Are you a Kapamilya or a Kapuso? Who are your favorite stars? What are your favorite shows? Where do you get your news?

See that’s the important question, that last one. That’s the important bit of programming. News. Information. As much as the teleseryes and blockbuster feature films draw the crowds, it is really the news shows which we need to focus on. Because at its core, isn’t ABS CBN meant to be a press outfit? A member of the fourth estate, the vital check and balance of our democracy? Isn’t its very existence as a company in the Philippines hinged on their Congress-granted franchise to operate as a broadcasting company in the Philippines?

When a company is lucky enough to achieve the status of cultural institution, they have to realize that their weight is now so much heavier that it was before. They can influence millions of Filipino viewers. That is an incredible power that is so easy to abuse, especially when as a corporation they are controlled by the interests of their bottomlines.

But who checks and balances the power of the media? Who can ensure that they are not abusing their influence? Our media companies are not non-profits, so why do we assume that they would bother pursuing the good of the public? What are the fictional moral guidelines which would allow a company to self regulate this enormous power? And what super hero of a selfless CEO would actually bother caring about them?

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The power we have given the media to self-regulate is a fatal flaw in our democracy.

ABS CBN is free to use the slogan “In Service of the Filipino People” and no one can hold them accountable for false advertising.

Here’s a core problem: ABS CBN is a company. They profit by selling ad space. Millions of pesos for precious seconds of air time. They are profiting off the influence they exert on people. This can be as harmless and promoting one brand of laundry detergent over another to as sinister as selecting the winners of a national election.

During the elections, media companies do not waive their fees to equally promote every candidate. They profit off of the elections just like how they profit off of our capitalist marketplace. They sell us on political parties just as much as they sell us the idea that we need to have whiter skin to be attractive.

We granted media outfits an extraordinary privilege – the power to monopolize information. And then we stripped ourselves of any ability to hold the media responsible.

This is what is happening now. ABS CBN considers itself invisible to criticism because it is supposedly part of the press. We’ve seen this happen before with foreign-owned Rappler and its pathological liar owner Maria Ressa. Then, same as now, the companies fed the public the narrative that they were the very embodiment of free press and civil liberty. They painted the government as the oppressive authoritarian enemy and disregarded the constitutional authority it has to decide what companies can operate as media in the Philippines.

But at the end of the day, they are just another company with shareholders and private bank accounts. They feel entitled to continue earning off selling information to the Filipino public because they have deluded even themselves into thinking they have the right to their profits.

This, what ABS CBN is doing to manipulate the public, is an abuse of power. President Duterte’s demands that they face their obvious violations of public trust and their franchise’s rules of self-regulation is simply the long overdue consequence of their actions.

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