FROM the likes of Sen. Franklin Drilon to an obscure never-heard reporter of ABS-CBN network talking to BBC to the bogus organization of “journalists,” the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, we’ve been hearing this claim that the Congress’ decision not to give that oligarch-owned network the privilege to use the nation’s radio frequency spectrum would have a “chilling effect” on press freedom.
That chilling effect cliché is one urban legend, actually in the same genre of an outright superstition that a black cat crossing your path means bad luck.
Take it from me, as I’ve been a journalist since my teens, even during martial law. If you believe in this chilling effect hogwash, you don’t know how media works, you’re a middling “journalist” with not enough experience in the business, or you’re simply a mouthpiece of the Lopezes of ABS-CBN shamelessly trying to hide the fact that Congress has boldly decided to disarm an oligarch of its media weapon.
There has never been such chilling effect on the press in our country, nor even elsewhere in the world, and I will argue not from abstractions but from empirical data, starting with the most recent cases where that nonsense has been raised, to the era of martial law.
To start off, you have to realize that media is a pride of lions, if you want to romanticize it, certainly not a herd of sheep. If you want to be more realistic, a pack of wolves. Indeed from that metaphor has emerged such media and PR terms as “feeding the beast,” i.e., constantly giving media material to report on, and “pack journalism,” i.e., mediamen, especially in news beats, reporting the same thing.
Whether lions or wolves, if one of them is attacked, the rest are not cowed. There is never a chilling effect on them, but instead a “heating” effect: most of the pack growl or even bite back. I admire President Rodrigo Duterte and the Congress for taking on ABS-CBN Corp. in order to start freeing the nation from the clutches of oligarchs, even at the risk of the pack pouncing on them. (Which they have already, at least some of them.)
When Duterte didn’t ask the judge a year ago to dismiss the libel cases against Maria Ressa or ask the Justice department not to investigate her for tax evasion, was there a chilling effect on her Rappler or even its owner Benjamin Bitanga? No. In fact, Rappler growled louder and became more vicious in its publication of outrightly fake or biased news. Did that have a chilling effect on the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), the Red news site Bulatlat.com? Certainly not.
When Duterte didn’t ask the government agency in charge of the Mile Long commercial area to evict the owners of PDI who illegally operated it, was the newspaper or other publications “chilled”? Not at all, in fact PDI even recruited more anti-Duterte columnists, even if they argued or wrote badly.
When President Joseph “Erap” Estrada asked companies not to advertise at PDI in 1999, was it, or other newspapers, cowed? No. In fact, PDI became more vicious while other media outlets became more anti-Erap that media helped bring about EDSA 2.
When President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo broke off her earlier alliance with the Lopezes and foot-dragged on the granting of price increases to the Manila Electric Co. that it financially bled, were these oligarchs and their ABS-CBN cowed? The network in fact became vicious in its coverage of her administration.
Ironically, it was the Yellows’ saint President Corazon Aquino who tried to suppress the media and who falsely believed in such chilling effect nonsense. In 1987, she ordered three radio stations closed, her officials claiming they were “opposition-run” and were glorifying the state’s enemies. She filed libel charges against Philippine Star columnist Luis Beltran, as well as his newspaper’s publisher Max Soliven (but excluded her dear friend, the paper’s owner Bettty-Go Belmonte).
Beltran’s wrongdoing? To point out that Aquino bunkered down somewhere in Malacañang during the 1987 coup attempt. Beltran used a figure of speech — that she “hid under her bed.” Beltran and Soliven were convicted in 1992, sentenced to two years in jail and ordered to pay Aquino P3 million in damages. The Court of Appeals acquitted them in 1995, with Beltran sadly unable to enjoy his acquittal having died the previous year.
Even during Marcos’ one-man rule, there wasn’t this nonsense of a chilling effect. The only way to control the press is to have all of the media controlled by the state, as in the case of Singapore. Private ownership of media always means a pack of uncontrollable wolves.
After I wrote a series of articles in 1983 in Business Day exposing the Central Bank’s manipulation of its reported level of international reserves (in order for it to claim that a foreign-exchange crisis was not looming, as I had argued), Philippine National Bank (PNB) President Placido Mapa, with Marcos’ trusted man Social Security System Administrator Gilberto Teodoro, told me that if I didn’t stop my investigations, they would ask my boss Raul Locsin to fire me, since the PNB could call in the newspaper’s loans that bankrolled its new printing press.
Was I or Locsin cowed, did the threat have a chilling effect on the newspaper? Certainly not, all Locsin did was to tell me that I better have documents to back up my reportage.
In 1984, the National Intelligence Board “invited” to their offices for questioning eight women reporters who had written critical articles on military actions. Were they cowed? Why, the eight even filed a celebrated case at the Supreme Court alleging that they were being intimidated for their critical articles. They won and wrote more critical articles against martial law.
Jose Burgos Jr.’s We Forum was closed down in December 1982, and the editor and his father were charged with sedition. Were they cowed? Burgos instead set up Ang Pahayagang Malaya which, at its peak, had a circulation of 1 million.
Other anti-Marcos publications followed suit, the largest being the PDI in 1985, which became after Marcos’ fall, the most lucrative publication in the next two decades.
There is no such hogwash as chilling effect. Journalists are like soldiers or firemen: they have a death wish of sorts in wishing for a chance to be heroic. Mediamen who claim that the ABS-CBN’s closure has a chilling effect on media are wimps or don’t know the profession they are in.
There could be a real chilling effect in certain cases though. One is when a media outfit has violated the Constitution, by having foreign equity and is terrified that an audacious Duterte uncovers such violation, decides to move against it, totally ignoring shouts that he is suppressing the press.
Guess what that foreign-controlled media conglomerate is.