Watching TV
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

ABS-CBN has cancelled its block-timing agreement with Chinatown News TV apparently in reaction to the spate of criticism it had been getting in Twitter and Facebook. If it had continued, it would have detracted from the heightened credibility of the network and the renewed public confidence in it that were among the positive consequences of the government’s denial last year of its application for the renewal of its franchise.

Journalists’ and artists’ groups, media advocacy organizations, and human rights and press freedom defenders supported ABS-CBN then, and so did 75 percent of the population. Ordinary folk also weighed in by recalling how its news reporting had helped them prepare for the typhoons, floods and other catastrophes that regularly afflict their communities.

When the now cancelled agreement became public, this time Netizens, among others, expressed their disappointment through social media because of the context in which it was signed: the country’s continuing problems with Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea. Only a few days earlier, China’s warships had harassed and chased to within 90 miles of Palawan province a civilian ship on which an ABS-CBN news team looking into the situation of Filipino fisherfolk was aboard. The network’s block-timing agreement with CNTV therefore surprised many.

“Block-timing” is a practice in which an individual or group buys “blocks” of time from a radio or television network to air its own programs in behalf of its political, economic or other interest. Under that all too brief agreement with CNTV, the ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) would have aired its programs during certain times, presumably not only in the Chinese common language (Putonghua) that is still known as Mandarin in the Philippines, but also in English and Filipino.

The practice gives anyone who can afford to pay for it the opportunity to disseminate without being challenged information even if false as well as their views on whatever issue they wish to focus on. Politicians campaigning for public office, for example, regularly buy blocks of time in television and radio. They or their hirelings present issues in a one-sided way, and attack their rivals without the latter’s being able to defend themselves. It is one of the means through which one can air one’s version of events without having to acknowledge and give equal time to opposing views. Because block-timing is fraught with ethical and professional infirmities, the self-regulatory Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) has expressed concern about the practice, but has failed to stop its use for even the most malignant purposes.

Managed by Filipinos of Chinese origin, would-be ABS-CBN block-timer CNTV is an advocate of China’s “One Belt One road” (OBOR) infrastructure program that would link some 70 countries to that country supposedly to foster trade and development. OBOR has been criticized as China’s way of luring other nations into its orbit in furtherance of its strategic aim of global economic and political dominance. The station also implied in one of its recently released videos that the West Philippine Sea should be shared by China and the Philippines.

When asked why the company was entering into a block-timing agreement with ABS-CBN, a CNTV spokesperson said it was because of the bigger network’s credibility. Translation: CNTV wanted to enhance the credibility of its own programs and to extend their reach through the use of ABS-CBN’s digital and online platforms. Perhaps its officers believed that if it had gone through, the arrangement would soften most Filipinos’ outrage over China’s claim that some 80 percent of the West Philippine Sea are part of its territory, and allay their fears that the Philippine government’s construction projects with China are debt traps.

But despite the Duterte regime’s seeming unconcern with China’s militarization of the West Philippine Sea and its other acts of aggression in it and its entering into billions of dollars’ worth of projects under the much touted — and much delayed — “Build, Build, Build” program, China is nevertheless the one country an overwhelming number of Filipinos trust the least. They instead trust the most China’s leading adversary, the United States. The distrust of China has been fueled by such acts as its occupying Philippine reefs and shoals, its sea craft’s driving Filipino fisherfolk away from their traditional fishing grounds and even stealing their catch, sinking a Filipino fishing boat, etc. These acts have helped strengthen anti-Chinese biases in Philippine culture despite centuries of interaction with that civilization, and on the other end, the supremacy of pro-US sentiments. The media are the leading means through which such sentiments are expressed and reinforced. The home and the educational system also help, but the mass reach of the media makes them more influential.

Not only in the Philippines has the weakness of Chinese cultural influence been a hindrance to the realization of its current hegemonic ambitions. In addition to US military might, China is also hindered by US cultural power. It is a power based on the dominance of that country’s culture industry, which daily floods the planet with unending streams of news reports, songs, movies, television programs and other vectors of Western values and ideas.

Even Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden was getting his news from Time-Warner’s CNN. When Russia was still the leading member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), one could watch in Moscow such US movies — dubbed in Russian, of course — as Rambo, and US television serials like Days of Our Lives. But because of their familiarity with the English language that the US forced on their forebears when the Philippines was still its colony, Filipinos don’t even need to have translated the Hollywood movies, the news programs, or the police and crime serials, situation comedies, cartoons, fantasy shows and other products for television the US media giants bombard the globe with.

Aware of how influential the US is on the minds and consciousness of billions of people, and of its own weakness in that area, China has launched a cultural offensive encouraging the learning of China’s common languages, reminding such countries as the Philippines of its Chinese cultural heritage, providing scholarships, and sponsoring visits to China. But it is also aware of the need for favorable publicity via the news media in advancing and defending its political, economic and strategic interests.

This is the larger context in which the cancellation of the CNTV agreement with ABS-CBN must be understood. Initially at least, the latter network seemed to have missed its implications on its own advocacy when it signed the agreement. Hopefully the cancellation of that scheme was not only in reaction to the criticisms against it, but also in the realization that its support for Philippine rights and sovereignty over its territorial waters would have been compromised.

The cancelation is neither a matter of censorship nor discrimination, but of complying with ethical and professional standards. Like any other media organization, CNTV is protected by Article III Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution which guarantees everyone’s rights to free expression, free speech and press freedom. It also has every right to its advocacy, which in fact it has been airing through its own facilities. The issue is whether that advocacy is factually-based, and, if it is not, whether any other media entity should help advance it to the detriment of its own convictions — and to the further injury of the fundamental journalistic responsibility of truth-telling.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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