POSTSCRIPT / August 29, 2000 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Ban on alien ownership of media is anachronistic

SUBIC BAY — here is a raging debate on whether or not to allow a Filipino media organization such as the Lopez clan’s Sky Vision to link up with a foreign media firm to launch and operate a new cable TV business in the country.

The Constitution says in Article 16 (General Provisions), Section 11 (which this writer refers to, for convenience, as the “16-11” provision on media): “The ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations, cooperatives or associations, wholly-owned and managed by such citizens. The Congress shall regulate or prohibit monopolies in commercial mass media when the public interest so requires. No combinations in restraint of trade or unfair competition therein shall be allowed.”

The legal question is whether the entry of foreign investors in local cable TV operations is a violation of the Constitution.

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SOME quarters who assume there is a violation but who welcome the infusion of foreign capital in local media suggest the amendment of the charter to lift the ban. But others who support the all-Filipino rule want the ban on aliens to stick.

The question boils down to whether or not cable TV is to be classified as “mass media.” If it is, then regardless of the noble intentions of merging with a foreign firm, the coming in of alien capitalists and managers is against the charter.

The Department of Justice appears to be of the view that cable TV is part of mass media for news and entertainment. On the other hand, Sky Vision argues that cable TV is not a mass medium but properly falls under information technology much like telephones and Internet services.

If the DoJ view is followed, a cable TV business with alien participation cannot be allowed under the Constitution. But if cable TV is lumped together with telecommunications, a way could be found to allow the entry of foreign capital without amending the charter.

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AND what is “mass media”? As most of us practitioners know it, “mass” refers to a broad audience (we’ll not go into how broad), and “media” refers to the traditional print and broadcast (radio and TV) media of information.

Using these broad definitions or classifications, is cable TV part of mass media? The question can be convincingly argued either way.

The only way to settle the basic legal question is to raise it before the Supreme Court.

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PENDING a ruling by the high tribunal, we presume to give our opinion that cable TV is not a mass medium in the sense that it caters exclusively to a limited, restricted paying audience served by direct cables.

This writer is of the position that while cable TV is of “media,” it is not “mass” enough.

We associate mass media with unfettered public access — meaning anybody who has the minimum of equipment or capability can intercept and receive (read, hear, view and/or capture) the messages sent to nobody in particular but to everybody in general.

Examples of mass media are newspapers and magazines distributed without restrictions and openly sold or sometimes even given away for free; radio programs that anybody with an ordinary radio set can listen to; and regular TV shows that are just there in the air ready to be received by anybody with a TV set.

Cable TV is different in that we have to subscribe to it and have special cables linking our viewing sets with the station or source of the programs. The materials on cable TV are sent directly, specifically and exclusively to paying subscribers, not broadcast and indiscriminately floated within a broadcast band for just anybody to grab.

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BUT going beyond debatable technical definitions, we call attention to the basic fact that information no longer recognizes such artificial barriers as national boundaries.

The global village is a seamless continuum where information or organized ideas are freely sent and received with increasingly less difficulty. This is so because of the nature of ideas and the advancement of information technology.

With the Internet and the expansion and diversification of its possibilities as an information medium, such parochial restrictions as native ownership of media and state censorship are being exposed as anachronistic and unrealistic.

It is no longer possible for a state system to deny its citizens exposure to the flood of ideas crashing through artificial national barriers.

With the Information Revolution upon us and the rest of the civilized world, such a feeble and archaic rule as requiring 100-percent Filipino ownership of media becomes ludicrous, and even unenforceable.

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IT is illogical for us to restrict information dissemination to only Filipino media owners and managers when foreign-based, foreign-financed and foreign-managed media organizations routinely penetrate and permeate the air above us and give our citizens unlimited access to their programs.

Why insist that only Filipinos may own, publish and sell publications when foreign magazines and other reading materials freely come in and spread alien ideas all over the land?

Why prohibit foreigners from operating radio and television stations when broad spectrum of foreign programs are broadcast non-stop over the heads of whoever are tasked with enforcing the ban?

The 16-11 restriction on information media is anachronistic, impractical, unfair and counterproductive. We’re not talking here only of traditional print and broadcast media but even of cable TV.

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WHY the ban then? The simple answer is that because the Constitution imposes it.

Next question is why we do not amend the Constitution if the intention is to keep it in step with reality in the rest of the world? Sorry, but it is not that easy, especially in these highly politicized times, to rewrite the charter.

If a consensus develops for easing the rules on the free flow of information but amending the charter is a daunting task, the next best thing we could do is pass a law applicable to the 16-11 provisions. Such a law could define mass media in a manner that would make for a more lax but progressive interpretation of the ban.

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STILL on media, on the closing day (last Sunday) of the three-day congress in this Freeport of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, final speaker Sen. Francisco S. Tatad stirred a discussion on the need for improving the competence of the Filipino journalist.

A former newspaperman and information minister, Tatad steered the journalists and media workers into self-criticism by pointing out that more than form or structure, what is more important in journalism is content or substance.

He also raised the point that some journalism curricula emphasize writing skills without giving proper attention to equipping the would-be journalist with the academic substance needed to report and comment on the human condition.

Without meaning to belittle formal education, Tatad mentioned some great names in journalism who were actually dropouts (like him, incidentally) or who had failed to earn a bachelor’s degree but went on to shine in media and other endeavors.

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WE pointed out in the same forum that if a youth wants to become a good journalist, he need not take a journalism course since most curricula in local schools dwell on writing skills. Writing is easy and can be learned on the go.

The student would do well to educate himself and take a course steeped in the liberal arts. As most working newspapermen would say, a good background in sociology, political science, economics, literature, sciences and such subjects is invaluable.

This is not to say that formal education is not important. On the contrary, most editors looking for competence and professionalism in applicants are more inclined to try a college graduate than a dropout, all other things being the same.

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POSTSCRIPT: Absent the more popular gasoline brands in this former US naval base, we gassed up in a PTT station here, choosing unleaded Performance 95 that the gasoline boy claimed had an octane rating of 95. He told us also that their supply comes from Coastal, a new player that is leasing the storage facilities in Subic.

We noticed that our car’s performance was just as well as, if not better than, when it was loaded with a popular (and overpriced) brand. This appears to reinforce our opinion that all gasoline of the same octane rating are created equal. Branding and advertising have nothing to do with a fuel’s performance.

But then, government must require oil companies to prominently indicate on the pump their fuels’ octane ratings — and for it to ensure that such claimed ratings are truthful.

The Coastal facilities here, which can store as much as 25 percent of the national inventory, are eyed for takeover by the National Oil Exchange (OilEx) proposed to be set up under a bill principally sponsored by Bataan Rep. Enrique T. Garcia.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 29, 2000)

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