A bit of brouhaha a couple of weeks ago after the National Telecommunications Commission ordered the country’s biggest broadcaster ABS-CBN to cease operations because Congress had been remiss in renewing their franchise.. This despite the NTC earlier promising they can operate provisionally while the franchise renewal is being processed, a change of heart apparently due to a legal opinion by the SolGen. Some thoughts:
The speaker of the house says:
But you are one of the reasons why there are issues with your network. In the eyes of some, there is clear bias and meddling in the elections, which is against the law.
Now, IDK what this supposed election meddling is that he’s talking about (If they have really done such a thing that is illegal, they can be charged in court, but AFAIK there are no such cases?), but speaking on the issue of “bias”: we cannot require that a news entity be unbiased.
Repeating for emphasis: we cannot require that a news entity be unbiased.
Why, you say? It comes back to the nature of bias, and the nature of humans. Every individual human is biased towards certain things, as a result of their experiences growing up. No matter how well-read or well-traveled or well-learned you are, your individual human experience is but a fraction of a fraction of an infinitessimal fraction of the collective human experience. Therefore, you will exhibit bias naturally.
Organizations are pretty much the same, since they are composed of biased humans. Any given organization can strive to be less biased by having members with diverse points of view and opinion. And in fact it would be better if our news entities were as unbiased as possible, this would be ideal.
But we (through the state) cannot require that such entities be unbiased, for the simple reason that determination of bias will itself be tainted by bias. There can be no absolute, objective standard for being unbiased, because who would make that judgement? Who would make the rules? Humans, who are also biased? Imposing such a vague restriction on news entities (“you must be unbiased”) is tantamount to imposing someone else’s will (and bias) upon the entity, and that encroaches upon the freedom of expression.
We can impose specific restrictions on freedoms of expression and the press through law; examples are:
- disallowing knowingly publishing falsehoods through libel laws (although this too is problematic, since truth is also not always measurable nor absolute)
- disallowing child pornography
- false fire alarms in a crowded theater
The important thing is that specific, measurable things can be disallowed, since presumably these can be evaluated fairly (or as fairly as possible). More dangerous are restrictions that depend upon the whims of those in power, such as commonly found in authoritarian countries like China.
I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty legalities of it, since I am not a lawyer. But my main point is that like it or not, we can’t require news entities to be unbiased. We want them to be as close to that as possible ideally, but we can’t require it, because that is not enforceable fairly.
About ABS-CBN specifically, I don’t even see any bias; I mean, if anything, many of their news anchors and celebrities seem to be supportive of the administration.
(You might disagree with me, but that’s just your bias, and that’s fine.)
Press Freedom, Access to Information, and other concerns
Some people have commented that press freedom still exists in the Philippines despite the ABS-CBN shutdown, citing reasons such as:
- existence of other networks
- ABS-CBN still being able to broadcast over digital channels
- people still being able to criticize the government
While this is true, that the Philippines does still enjoy some press freedom, undoubtedly:
- any reduction in the diversity of news sources is harmful to democratic society since it reduces access to information
- not everyone has access to cable or internet channels through which ABS-CBN programs can still be accessed, thus depriving many people of a source of information (and in some cases the only source of information they had available)
- the mere fact that the government, on the president’s whim and vindictiveness (no one really believes the NTC and the SolGen and even the House are acting independently), has taken the biggest network off the air leads to what is called a chilling effect, basically sending a message to everybody else. If even the biggest network in the country can be taken down, what chance do smaller outfits or independent journalists have?
People have cited other reasons why ABS-CBN should have not been taken down, like the fact that X number of workers would lose their jobs. For me, that’s extraneous. Of course we don’t want anyone to lose their livelihoods, but that shouldn’t even be necessary to contemplate: on the basis of the harms to democracy and press freedom alone this should not have happened. And especially not during a pandemic, when getting information out to people can be crucial!
I understand the requirement for Congress to approve broadcast franchises, since broadcast frequencies are a limited resource. But if it were me: the grant of provisional franchise upon expiry would be automatic unless explicitly revoked by Congress with clear violations specified as the cause of revokation. And the grant of franchise should probably explicity specify the conditions upon which the franchise may not be renewed. The grant or renewal of broadcast franchises should be as free of politics as possible.
How to police “bad” news entities?
If we can’t impose unbiasedness, and shutting them down violates press freedom, how do we control wayward news entities? Since humans are biased, we have no universal definition of “bad”, but there are still some controls that society can impose, not necssarily through law:
- through law, specific restrictions as described above
- Ideally, it should be the market and news consumers themselves who are able to control the biases of the news entities, by not patronizing news entities that tend to be editorialized. (Although this probably requires a more educated populace, see: Fox News). ABS-CBN itself is still super popular, in spite of everything.
The chilling effect on free expression has a slippery slope. Already the government has started going after critics allegedly for social media posts. If we are not careful, we might be on the road to becoming like China. (Which might be what Duterte and his cult following want, but certainly won’t be good for a democratic Philippines).