Regulatory authorities

Although associations of broadcast corporations and newspapers exist with a set of regulatory standards, it appears that these self-regulatory systems lack teeth, and more so for outlets that are not members. According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility or CMFR (2011), ‘the media are not only failing to regulate themselves; more importantly, some media organisations are actually depending on the government to intervene, in effect eroding the very principle of self-regulation itself.’ A case that should illustrate this is that of a hostage-taking incident in 2010, in which the ‘Kapisanan ng Mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas’ or KBP (Association of Philippine Broadcasters) investigated the accusations of reckless reporting that partly compromised police operations at that time.

The government then asked the KBP to intervene and impose appropriate sanctions, given that there is no government body mandated to regulate Philippine media. Almost a year after the hostage-taking incident, the KBP decision, which found its member networks guilty of ethical lapses, ‘has come down to feeble fines of P30,000, and a virtual slap on the wrist (Lingao, 2011). The CMFR likened to situation to a ‘mountain laboring to produce a mouse’ (2011). Worse, the GMA network, one of the media giants that constitute what is essentially a television duopoly, was not penalized because it withdrew its KBP membership in 2003 (It had a tiff with the association over commercial loading limits). Hence, the KBP asked the government to act on the ethical lapses under GMA, which was ironic given that ‘media self-regulation means that media institutions themselves enforce ethical and professional standards among their members without intervention from the government or any other external agency’ (CMFR, 2011).

The KBP members that were penalized – ABS-CBN, RMN, and then ABC-5 – even filed appeals to reverse the KBP decision. Instances such as this led monitorial organisations such as the CMFR to ‘doubt the future of self-regulation’ among Philippine media.

In terms of ownership regulation, the legal framework allows government bodies to interpret legal guidelines and process applications for setting-up media outlets. Protectionist laws require mass media to be owned and managed wholly by citizens or corporations wholly owned and managed by them. However, as the Media Ownership Monitor (2017) noted, the implementation of these protectionist laws are severely lacking, as in the case of tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan’s media and telecommunication empire, the ownership of which can be traced to Indonesia.

The telecommunications industry, unlike mass media, is classified under the ‘public utility regulatory regime’, which mandates only a 60-40 ownership scheme (at least 60 percent owned by Filipinos and 40 percent by foreign equity). However, proposed amendments to the Philippine Constitution include a removal of such protectionist measures.

For a broadcast outlet to operate, it needs to follow the ‘twin franchising principle’. It has to register with the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to acquire a franchise approved by the Congress. It also has to secure a second authorization – ‘a second franchise’ – from the National Telecommunications Commission, which is called the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.

In terms of monitoring ownership concentration, the Philippine Competition Commission, a newly established body under the Fair Competition Act of 2015, is mandated to spot anti-competition agreements and break up media monopolies if the case requires.

Recent events, however, shed light on the possibilities in which the government can exercise control over media outlets through the existing legal framework. For example, in 2018, the SEC revoked the operating license of Rappler, an online media outlet that published articles critical of the administration. The SEC ruled that Rappler is ‘liable for violating the constitutional and statutory Foreign Equity Restriction in Mass Media’ (Tomacruz, 2018) because one of its investors is a foreign philanthropic investment firm, Omidyar Network. Omidyar invested in Rappler in 2015 through Philippine Depositary Receipts, which allows foreigners to invest in a Filipino company without owning part of it or without being involved in its management. Rappler executives such as Maria Ressa believed that the there was no due process and that the firm is being singled out in what was described as a politically motivated move (Rappler, 2018a).

Another prominent example is the case of ABS CBN, the oldest television station in Southeast Asia, and the leading network in the country in terms of audience share. Through a ‘cease and desist’ order, the network was forced to go off air when the Philippine Congress failed to renew its legislative franchise. A broadcast network needs a franchise to operate, which legislators have to approve or renew, as the case may be. However, the legislators rejected the bill for the renewal of the franchise, leaving the 11,000 media workers of ABS CBN in limbo. For some, the refusal of the Congress to renew the franchise only shows the loyalty of the legislators to the interests of the executive. In a statement, several faculty of the University of Sto. Tomas called the decision an ‘unabashed display of servility to the Duterte regime and its enablers and a brazen exercise of political power.’

Although several concerned agencies of the government, such as the SEC and the Bureau of Internal Revenue, have made it clear that the network did not violate any laws and paid its taxes regularly (CNN Philippines Staff, 2020a), majority of the lawmakers still voted against the franchise renewal, which led many to believe that the network is being singled out as an outcome of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘political vendetta’ (Lema and Morales, 2020). Duterte himself threatened to block the renewal of the franchise and also threatened to sue ABS CBN for not airing his political advertisements during the 2016 campaign period (Rappler, 2020a).