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A deafening silence

"Why has the Philippine Competition Commission been quiet about the ABS-CBN issue?"

 

It may not be the most important of the English language’s figures of speech, but an oxymoron is undoubtedly the most picturesque. An oxymoron is a phrase made up of words that are so contradictory as to infuse the phrase with either emphasis or irony. 

A prime example of an oxymoron is the phrase “deafening silence.” The intent of the phrase is obvious: it is to emphasize the fact that there was silence when sounds were needed or expected. One does not become deaf from listening to a person who does not say anything. 

The oxymoron “deafening silence” is perfectly applicable to the posture and conduct of this country’s anti-monopoly watchdog, PCC (Philippine Competition Commission) relating to the shutdown of ABS-CBN in the wake of the House of Representative’s committee on legislative franchises’ decision to not grant the broadcast network a new franchise; PCC came into being in 2016. Congress, after coming to the realization that it had for too long non-prioritized the necessary legislative proposal and that no government agency had a clear and specific mandate to investigate and stop anti-competitive business arrangements, enacted the Philippine Competition Commission Act.

PCC’s supporters recognize the great importance of appointing, as the PCC’s first chief executive officer, an individual capable of setting the right tone and direction for the new agency. They were not disappointed: President Aquino appointed as PCC’s first chairman a person of excellent academic credentials – a doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of the Philippines Los Baños – and personal qualification, namely Arsenio Balisacan. Many academics think that the government would be better off if Dr. Balisacan had been appointed head of the Department of Agriculture; but it is to the PCC that President Duterte chose to send him. 

Since the start of their agency’s operations, Dr. Balisacan and his two fellow-Commissioners have lived up to the expectations of their supporters. They have examined – either motu propio or upon a request for a ruling every situation that has posed, or was likely to pose, a threat to the state of competition in a significant part of the economy of this country. PCC’s decision-making track record has been good; not one of its decisions has been challenged thus far. When Dr. Balisacan and his colleagues have sensed that competition had been destroyed or was under threat in a certain industry, they have not hesitated to say so; when the state of affairs was the opposite, they have likewise not hesitated to say so.

Then came ABS-CBN’s effort to obtain from the House of Representatives a replacement for the franchise that was due to expire on May 4, 2020. That turn of events brought to an end PCC’s hitherto commendable speak-when-you-need-to-speak operating record.

Throughout the entire ABS-CBN episode – from the broadcast giant’s announcement of its intention to seek a new franchise to the Committee on Franchises hearings–  PCC was never heard from. Dr. Balisacan and his colleagues were deafeningly silent.

They were deafeningly silent notwithstanding the fact that the Philippine broadcast industry has long been a duopoly – the other duopolist being GMA Network Inc. – and that the removal of ABS-CBN from the scene would lead to GMA Network’s becoming a monopoly, with almost complete dominance of the marker instead of the former 40-45 percent. If the situation involved any other sector of the economy – say, manufacturing – the discussion would be less sensitivity-imbued and complicated. But the ABS-CBN issue involves a utility and by their very nature utilities have a tendency to become oligopolists at best and duopolists at worst. In the broadcast industry there are two reasons for that: the heavy capital investment requires the limit on the availability of frequencies.

The competitive situation in the Philippine broadcast industry was unsatisfactory or it was – two players dominating the market – and the cessation of ABS-CBN operations would result in the conversion of the Philippine broadcast industry from a duopoly, an outright monopoly. As any Filipino knows, a monopoly connotes the absence of choice. With the rejection of ABS-CBN’s application for a new franchise, that conversation has come to pass; GMA Network is now to all intents and purposes a monopoly.

Why has PCC been deafeningly silent? Why were Dr. Balisacan and his colleagues not heard from at all? Why did they not remind the House of Representatives leadership of the competitive situation in the Philippine broadcast industry and the impact on public information, culture, popular entertainment, and press freedom of the shutting down of one-half of the industry?

Was it because they did not consider ABS-CBN’s possible closure a matter of serious concern? Did they think that GMA Network’s emergence as a monopolist was not an unacceptable development? Or were they plainly and simply afraid of incurring the ire of their boss, President Duterte, who had indicated a personal interest in the same issue of a new franchise for the nation’s larger broadcast network?

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. PCC’s deafening silence on the ABS-CBN issue has done nothing to enhance the reputation of the agency specifically mandated to maintain competitive conditions in all parts of the economy of this country.

Topics: Rudy Romero , Philippine Competition Commission , PCC , ABS-CBN , House of Representative , legislative franchises
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