The CJ was guilty in the public arena and this background contributed to a decision that remains controversial to this day.
Note: This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on July 14, 2020.
Much has been said about press freedom and the loss of freedom of expression from the problems Rappler and ABS-CBN Corp. had with regulatory agencies. The problems were of their own doing because they chose to game the system to their advantage. The two media organizations drilled like there was no tomorrow regarding the impeachment charges filed against the late Chief Justice (CJ) Renato Corona. There was no fair play in media then.
The CJ was guilty in the public arena and this background contributed to a decision that remains controversial to this day. From eight grounds for impeachment, Corona was found guilty of one — for violations in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).
The articles of impeachment, dated Dec. 12, 2011, were filed. The Senate began trial on Jan. 16. 2012 and on May 29, 2012, Corona was found guilty.
Since that ruling, changes have been made to the SALN process and legislators are now allowed to amend the same. It would be interesting to see if, from 2011, compliance with the filing of the SALN has been enhanced.
The news cycle at that time aided the prosecutors, from slanted stories to malicious articles. Reporters became the central characters of stories and coverage and it was shown to all how best to destroy a man in the public arena. Just doing a review of all the headlines then will show how Rappler and ABS-CBN orchestrated the kill in a Roman arena of gladiators.
On April 29, 2016, CJ Corona died a broken man. He was only 67 years old. How did Rappler and ABS-CBN contribute to the breaking of the CJ? From eight articles of impeachment, down to one, but for those four months CJ Corona was pulped dry, remember? Claims were made about properties, even dragging in his family; Office of the Ombudsman, Bureau of Internal Revenue and Department of Justice heads were called in; bank accounts were presented courtesy of the Anti-Money Laundering Council; a “small” woman was purportedly handing over documents in Congress; other documents were turning up mysteriously in a congresssman’s gate; and there was so much air-twisting to arrive at the results. But the headlines were framed as guilty and primed to support the conclusions of favored individuals.
In the end, only one article was left, the one involving Corona’s SALN, and, at the time, the law allowed for an erroneous SALN to be corrected. The CJ was held to a higher standard and rightly so but, certainly, it should not be done to the extent of stepping on him, destroying his name by design and being executed, with the media organizations leading the offensive.
Press freedom is the “right to publish newspapers, magazines and other printed matter without governmental restriction and subject only to the laws of libel, obscenity [and] sedition among others.” Is press freedom dead? Was the lapse of a network’s franchise synonymous to the death of press freedom? Why would ABS-CBN blame the situation in which it found itself on the government or Congress when it failed in what it was supposed to do. The same with Rappler, who knew they had Philippine depositary receipts? The revocation of their certificate of incorporation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, tax complaint filed by the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the cyberlibel suit filed by a private complainant actually indicated that the government is complying and upholding the rule of law and that no one is above the law. Both Rappler and ABS-CBN are still open and doing business in their digital platforms.
Freedom of expression refers to the “ability of an individual or group of individuals to express their beliefs, thoughts, ideas and emotions about different issues free from government censorship.” Still, all of us are free saying what we want in any platform. A broadcaster said, “Gusto ko lang linawin sa mga kabataan na ang mga journalist ay hindi PR practitioners. Trabaho naming maging patas sa pagbabalita pero hindi namin obligasyong magpaligaya ng taong ibinabalita namin.” I hope journalists are, but we know for a fact that once they cross from facts (news reading) to opinions (as a commentator), the lines are blurred. For so long as the facts remain such, no need to make people happy. But as the facts are played and games, journalists are no longer provider of facts but are already propagandists.
Why is there a certain hate against the two media organizations? Because they spew hate and are harbingers of malicious news arcs. That their reporting is the only way show what is wrong in how they view themselves in the scheme of things. The congressional hearings on the franchise of ABSCBN showed what was wrong with the media behemoth. They blame others when, in fact, the revelations on their business operations were telling. That the corporate layering is now with the House blue ribbon committee is telling. It is no longer about a franchise, but their corporate behavior and if supporters don’t get that, there is certainly something wrong with them.
There are so many things wrong with the push of ABS-CBN to secure a new franchise. It sullied its brand from Day 1. First, they consciously allowed it to lapse because of the differences between its chief executive officer then and the previous president. Second, instead of proactively filing early, they filed late and boxed themselves in because they relied heavily on political allies. Third, they taunted regulatory bodies.
An endearing brand, ABS-CBN reeked of hubris and a sense of entitlement. As the hearings progressed, they used negative spins, attacking legislators and using its follower base online to get the edge and positive spins, projecting themselves as the underdog and harping on 67 years in the service of the Filipino. The endearing brand became a bullying brand online. Imagine if such talents were used for a positive campaign? That would have sealed the deal because, instead of hitting, one can actually educate the public on several issues connected to media literacy. Imagine artists being used for a positive campaign? The backroom was not used to build an alliance and move toward building consensus. No scenario planning, so exits are clearly identified before even a vote in the committee. Even the hearings never took a turn for the better because issues were not resolved in each hearing. That’s the problem when you hire 18 lawyers and so many public relations practitioners who were busy managing the media environment and forgetting about dealing with members of Congress. There was no strategy at all in addressing the issues head-on or even striking a possible way out. The hearings were such that the corporate veils were pierced to the detriment of the media giant.
At the end, when a measure is tabled through a vote of the standing committee, it would be very hard to get reconsideration, unless there is a new development germane to the franchise. The fact that the resolutions were jointly referred to the Committee on Legislative Franchises and Good Government and the Committee on Public Accountability was already a red flag, but ABS-CBN never raised the jurisdictional issue because they were not looking at the loaded bases. When the Legislative Franchises committee finally voted, it was clear that the corporate layering did them in and it is now being obfuscated with issues that are not germane to the franchise. In fine, franchise measures are “de kahon” and what swings the pendulum depends on who the owner/applicant is and their conformance with regulatory permits and licenses. One who goes to Congress must have clean hands, though that may sound ironic to some. A legislative franchise is a privilege and it is one of the powers of Congress to exercise. The door, though, is not closed because the digital platforms are there for media organizations to consider, develop and nurture. And press freedom is alive and well, even as ABS-CBN shifts to digital. Rappler and ABS-CBN are still functioning. Do they feel the so-called “chilling effect”? The fact that they can churn out the same hyperboles and ironies is proof that they can still dish out their brand of journalism.
I was banned by Ms. Jing Reyes of ABS-CBN and its platforms for saying that it was the biggest political party in the country, that it can make and unmake candidates. A sage once said: “Media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
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