Government can and should regulate broadcast media
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2010-09-19
The September 14 Senate Public Information Committee Hearing, where ABS-CBN, GMA Network, ABC-5 and RMN resource persons were questioned over their respective roles during the Manila Hostage Crisis of August 23, revealed vital information that the public must know.  

Most people are unaware that there is a big difference between the print and the broadcast media which operate under Congressional franchises and are thus subject to the State’s rules and regulations. Other than complying with business regulations, print media are not bound by the rules and regulations that Congressional franchises impose on broadcast media.

Senator Joker Arroyo ably pointed out these distinctions and even cited the following three provisions (Sections 4, 5 and 9) that are found on a Congressional franchise like that of Republic Act 7966 which is the franchise of ABS-CBN:

SECTION 4. Responsibility to the Public — The grantee shall provide adequate public service time to enable the government, through the said broadcasting stations, to reach the population on important public issues; provide at all times sound and balanced programming; promote public participation such as in community programming; assist in the functions of public information and education; conform to the ethics of honest enterprise; and not use its stations for the broadcasting of obscene and indecent language, speech, act or scene, or for the dissemination of deliberately false information or willful misrepresentation to the detriment of the public interest, or to incite, encourage, or assist in subversive or treasonable acts.

SECTION 5. Right of Government — A special right is hereby reserved to the President of the Philippines, in times of rebellion, public peril, calamity, emergency, disaster or disturbance of peace and order, to temporarily take over and operate the stations of the grantee, to temporarily suspend the operation of any station in the interest of public safety, security and public welfare, or to authorize the temporary use and operation thereof by any agency of the government, upon due compensation to the grantee, for the use of the said stations during the period when they shall be so operated.

SECTION 9. Self-regulation by and Undertaking of Grantee — The grantee shall not require any previous censorship of any speech, play, act or scene, or other matter to be broadcast and/or telecast from its stations: provided, that the grantee, during any broadcast and/or telecast, shall cut off from the air the speech, play, act or scene, or other matter being broadcast and/or telecast if the tendency thereof is to propose and/or incite treason, rebellion or sedition; or the language used therein or the theme thereof is indecent or immoral, and willful failure to do so shall constitute a valid cause for the cancellation of this franchise.

The State is well within its right to impose these aforementioned provisions because broadcast media operate with the use of the airwaves which only the government can grant to franchisees. Government cannot impose these provisions on Print media which operate sans a government franchise. Print media are accountable for violations cited in the Penal Code — such as cases of libel, slander, defamation of character and so forth.

While there is no specific mention of rules for the handling of a hostage crisis in Section 9 of the said broadcast franchise, ABS-CBN and the other networks cannot claim not to know that they should not be airing live the tactical operations of the police and the military owing to previous experiences during broadcast coverage of the coup attempts against the Cory Aquino administration as well as the more recent Makati Peninsula Hotel incident. The Manila Crisis Committee may have been remiss in reminding media about these guidelines but that does not excuse the media from the violations.

Many of the questions and issues that were raised by the Senators during the hearing were directed to Maria Ressa of ABS-CBN. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile appeared to have the benefit of inside information when he grilled Ressa about an alleged discussion between her and the network news and public affairs managers on the pros and cons of covering live the Manila Hostage Crisis tactical operation. Ressa denied the discussion ever happened. Enrile even dropped the name of Beth Frondoso, a network producer whom ABS-CBN sources said became the focal point of a big controversy some time ago which resulted in the resignation of Luchi Cruz Valdes, now with ABC-5.

Senators Enrile and Joker Arroyo alternated in questioning Ressa on her having provided ­ the live footages of the Manila Hostage Crisis which the two Senators claimed ruined the country’s image abroad and her September 10 “Noynoy flunks his first test” Asia Wall Street Journal article. You have to admire Maria Ressa for her ability to react to such big issues as if she is the “Pontiff of Media” — sounding every bit like she firmly holds the high ground.

The network representatives did admit in varying degrees that they did err in their live coverage of the Manila Hostage Crisis. They are lucky that the Senators are still opting to give them the chance to craft their guidelines for future similar crises coverage. They should undertake this among themselves instead of compelling the legislators to formulate these guidelines as well as the corresponding penalties for its violations.

While the government is at it, they should also look into the current state of Philippine television which had pandered, for too long and too much, to what adds to its revenues – but to the point of reducing its bigger, more important public service mandate. Philippine free TV is too much concentrated on providing entertainment when there is a glaring Information Gap that is plaguing many Filipinos.

The government is well within its right to mandate that television networks should prioritize the servicing of the biggest needs of the Filipino people. If the government wants to, it can even issue guidelines that will compel broadcast franchisees to allocate specific hours for developmental programming. The airwaves belong to the people and their biggest needs should first be addressed by the TV networks.

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