Freedom of Expression, contrived

Freedom of expression is a universal human right. It is “not the prerogative of the politician. Nor is it the privilege of the journalist. In their day-to-day work, journalists are simply exercising every citizen’s right to free speech.” Everyone has the right to communicate his or her opinions and ideas and share information in whatever form. In human rights, this is called freedom of expression. It prohibits the state and other people in society from censorship and it can be restricted for only very serious reasons.

Note: This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on February 25, 2020.

“ABS-CBN [Corp.] is the biggest political party in the country.” Uttering this statement got me banned from the television network on orders of one of its officers. So, do I go about saying my right to free speech was curtailed because they did not like what I said? No, but no one can stop me from saying they are indeed the biggest political party, with a Senate hearing ongoing based on a resolution that has nothing to do with the renewal of their franchise. The biggest party needed to air its side and would want to paint itself as the underdog. When in fact it is not.

The ban was most welcome since I do not want to be their mouthpiece on certain conclusions they want to portray on a given political event. I would often chastise younger reporters who would continue inviting me, reminding them, “Alam ba ‘yan ni Jing Reyes? Check with her.” My attention was called by three of my colleagues regarding my utterances; one even volunteered to host a lunch with that officer. What’s wrong with my point of view?

Press freedom is the “principle that communication and expression through various media, including printed and electronic media, especially published materials, should be considered a right to be exercised freely.” A free press is “fundamental to a democratic society. It seeks out and circulates news, information, ideas, comment and opinion, and holds those in authority to account. The press provides the platform for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. At national, regional and local level, it is the public’s watchdog, activist and guardian as well as educator, entertainer and contemporary chronicler.”

Freedom of expression is a universal human right. It is “not the prerogative of the politician. Nor is it the privilege of the journalist. In their day-to-day work, journalists are simply exercising every citizen’s right to free speech.” Everyone has the right to communicate his or her opinions and ideas and share information in whatever form. In human rights, this is called freedom of expression. It prohibits the state and other people in society from censorship and it can be restricted for only very serious reasons.

So, what becomes of a TV station and its officer who bans an expert who uttered in 2007: “The biggest political party in the country is ABS-CBN”? Aren’t contrarian views part and parcel of freedom of expression? Isn’t issuing a ban a restraint on expression? When the subject matter expert becomes the subject of a meeting where an order is made, whether verbal or written, to remove her from the pool of experts because of what was uttered years ago, is clearly a violation of one’s right to say what is on her mind. Worse, what do you make of a vice president for public affairs who says, “Gusto pala n‘yang magkaroon ng show, pwede naman sa amin.” In reality, the show was offered by another station and it took a while to decide because that was never planned. This behavior tells you a lot about the TV station and the way they see their publics.

TV stations invite subject matter experts. Some would do an honest-to-goodness search, others would just wing it and get those whom they know or those whose views are already known or those who would say what the TV station wants. People think that these invited experts are paid. They are not. They prepare for the guesting, adjust their wardrobe to what the TV station would suggest and travel to the station on their own. That is, after telling the person inviting them what they think of the topic. Why? Because they already have a desired ending, they only need a third party to enhance the position they are taking on an issue. And they do not even protect their guests from online bashing done by their trolls to promote the episode. Of late, even a so-called media portal, which you do not know the brains behind, would tune in and characterize the guesting of an analyst as the reason for poor elections coverage, as if one analyst can do that to a coverage. But then again that’s broadcast media for you where everything is propaganda-induced.

It is worse when the TV coverage is gavel-to-gavel; some would give water and food to guests, while others would just give water and coffee. You might get old rice and fried chicken. Among the TV stations I have guested in (and I have been to a lot), TV 5 treats their studio guests a lot better. Our views are respected and we are not treated as some kind of chattel.

Why is ABS-CBN the biggest political party? Because it can make or unmake a candidate for the Senate, or make a vice president and president win office — until President Rodrigo Duterte came into picture. How? Via coverage and political ads. Subliminal is the way to go and viewers do not notice that during the pre-campaign period. But once E-Day comes, their candidates are top of mind. There is a whole chapter on media effects that readers should study to understand how media works. Coverage can mean news, mentions, commentaries and human interest, and a lot of other modes. A political party is a group of people with similar political goals and opinions. The purpose of the political party is to get candidates elected to public office.

The Lopezes know what economic power is and why political power is a necessity. Alfred McCoy in his Anarchy of Families documented the Lopez family and their decision to perpetuate their economic power (Eugenio Lopez) by ensuring that a member of the family (Fernando Lopez) was in politics. In 1965, the Nacionalista presidential candidate was Ferdinand Marcos. Fernando Lopez became the vice presidential running mate of Marcos. “Eugenio Lopez used his money, media and machine to make Marcos president in 1965 and to reelect him in 1969.” And the rest as they say is history, from Aquino 1 and Aquino 2 and their nurturing roles of pulling the rug from under Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The extension of the franchise of ABS-CBN could have been made in the 16th Congress under BSA3, but the conditions attached to it were not to the liking of the Lopezes. So, why blame the next administration.

Political ads are through frequency of spots and reach, defined by slots in media buys. “A 30-second TV commercial costs around P500,000 to P800,000; a small image ad in a local newspaper would be somewhere around P20,000 to P50,000. Some of the big companies spend P4 billion to P20 billion yearly on TV ads alone.” As for radio, you can have it “in the can from P50,000 to P90,000 fully recorded, edited and mixed using a single-voice talent.” And it costs just a fraction of a TV ad to air a single radio spot — P5,000 to P7,000 on prime time of top-rating FM stations.” It is even cheaper on AM stations. If a media organization has cross platforms, one can avail of a bundle with TV rates being paid and the rest are freebies.

GMA 7 leads in Metro Manila (12 percent of voters), but ABS-CBN rules in the rest of the country. Political ads came into being under Republic Act 9006, or the “Fair Elections Act,” approved in 2001. Section 3 of the law states: “Election propaganda whether on television, cable television, radio, newspapers or any other medium is hereby allowed for all registered political parties, national, regional, sectoral parties or organizations participating under the party-list elections and for all bona fide candidates seeking national and local elective positions subject to the limitation on authorized expenses of candidates and political parties, observance of truth in advertising and to the supervision and regulation by the Commission on Elections.”

Imagine a world where candidates that ABS-CBN support can have a telenovela and do a dipstick, and viola, that actor lands in the top ranks in a Senate race. Or some digital initiatives of the corporation that presents a subliminal symbol of a candidate that is shown across 60 million views? Imagine a point in time where their chosen candidates are campaigning in a platform truly unique and viewed only via smart phones? As of 2018, “close to 7 million homes now have TV plus boxes. Seven out of 10 non-cabled homes in Metro Manila and 6 out of 10 non-cabled homes in the suburbans are now watching television on TV plus boxes.”

ABS-CBN can do a broadcast and/or a narrowcast. Its reportable segments are media networks and studio entertainment; cable, satellite and broadband; digital and consumer products and experiences. If you go by the subsidiaries it has, you will see its might and with the shift to digital terrestrial TV broadcasting, a fully digital TV in 2023 changes the political terrain.

The Senate hearing is painful to watch because as owners of the spectrum, a patrimonial asset, Filipinos (taxpayers and viewers) see what the resolution is all about. They rake in the money and they queue the ads not on a first-come-first served basis, but on who has the gold to pay before broadcast. Eleven thousand employees? How about looking at the 110 million Filipinos who own the spectrum instead of what senators keep saying, moving forward? When ABS-CBN went to the Senate, guess who it was who blinked.

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About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
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