ABS-CBN shutdown: Oppressing the press

The Philippine government’s closing down of the country’s biggest broadcast network is the latest attack in its decades-long war against and persecution of the press.

By Jeremiah Capacillo

Picture: Basilio H. Sepe for ABS-CBN News

As someone born in the Philippines during the mid ’90s, I never knew a time without the presence of ABS-CBN. Founded in 1946 after the war, the television network over the decades has become part and parcel of daily Filipino life. As a child, I’d play with my toy cars on the dining table while the news programme Magandang Gabi Bayan played in the background; on weekend mornings, I’d wake up early to watch Tagalog-dubbed versions of cartoons like Doraemon and Voltes V. As a teenager in the late aughts, I’d tune in to the 6pm news show TV Patrol and watch as the flurry of headlines and commentary slowly shaped my political consciousness.

Sadly, the country’s largest broadcasting network may soon be a relic of the past. On the evening of May 5, ABS-CBN went off the air after a years-long battle with the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to renew its broadcasting franchise. Granted with a 25-year term franchise in March 1995, the media conglomerate has unsuccessfully attempted to file for franchise renewal since 2014 – all while facing an avalanche of opposition from various lawmakers and government bodies.

Critics claim that the factors behind the network’s shutdown lies far beyond mere technicalities. In 2016, ABS-CBN aired an election advertisement lambasting then presidential-candidate Rodrigo Duterte’s public and rampant use of foul language. This didn’t sit well with President Duterte, whose ire against the network is well-documented:

  • In March 2017, Duterte went after ABS-CBN and the newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer, lambasting both for what he claims is their “unfair reporting.”
  • In May 2017, the president called the network out during a public speech. He ended the speech in a less-than-dignified manner: “You want to know my sentiments? F*ck you.”
  • In August 2018, Duterte stated that he wouldn’t interfere with ABS-CBN and their quest to renew their franchise. However, he also claimed: “If I had it my way, I wouldn’t give it back to you.”
  • In December 2019, Duterte threatened ABS-CBN on live TV, saying “I’ll see to it that you’re out.” In another speech given the same month, he advised the network’s owners to sell their company as renewal of their franchise application remains doubtful.

The NTC’s cease-and-desist order halted ABS-CBN’s broadcasts in both radio and television. This effectively shuts down the media conglomerate’s hard work in entertaining the masses, shaping public opinion and delivering hard facts for the first time in decades – a massive loss for contemporary Filipino culture.

However, some feel that ABS-CBN deserved its fate. Earlier in February, solicitor-general Jose Calida accused the network of “going beyond the scope of its legislative franchise” and violating constitutional bans against foreign ownership (ABS-CBN has denied these allegations). Several ardent government supporters also feel that the media conglomerate’s news reporting leans biased in favor of opposition sentiment.

Nevertheless, the shutdown caused a massive public uproar. Several Filipinos took online to lambast the move as an attack against journalists and the free press. The Commission of Human Rights condemned the NTC’s actions, adding that it sends a “chilling effect” on free media and sets a dangerous precedent on freedom of expression. The shutdown also garnered the attention of several international media outlets. Undeniably, ABS-CBN’s going off air is a dark watershed moment for Philippine press freedom.

“Most dangerous country for journalists”

This isn’t the first time ABS-CBN has had their rights infringed upon – the last time around, it was 1972 and the dictator Ferdinand Marcos has just declared martial law. Under Proclamation No. 1081, the government seized control of the broadcast network and placed its then-president Eugenio Lopez in jail without trial. In 1973, the fascist regime revamped the station into a government propaganda network named BBC-2. It would take 14 years and a people power revolution until ABS-CBN regained control of its station.

Over the years, the Philippines has proven time and again its inhospitality towards the press. In November 2009, 32 media workers and journalists were brutally slain in what has come to be known as the Maguindanao massacre. To this day, the killings remain to be the single deadliest event ever recorded by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The next decade brought little reform. In 2019, the government arrested Rappler founder and executive editor Maria Ressa on charges of cyber libel. Rappler, an online news website that has been vocal against the current administration, has been subjected to much harassment. In 2017, Duterte even falsely alleged that the media outfit was owned and funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency.

The country’s poor track record on press freedom has been criticised by various international watchdogs. In 2018, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) named the Philippines as the deadliest country for journalists in Southeast Asia; in 2019, the CPJ ranked the country as the fifth deadliest in the world for media workers.

And lest anyone underestimates the gravity of these stats, consider this: The IFJ reports that 12 journalists have been murdered under the Duterte administration.

Press persecution amid a pandemic

Complicating matters further is the fact of how all of this manipulation is happening while the coronavirus pandemic unfolds. Many are enraged over how the government seems to prioritize shutting down ABS-CBN even though it already received much criticism regarding their slow relief response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Furthermore, the shutdown comes at a most inopportune time when the need for access to information is at its most crucial. Jonathan Ong, a global digital media professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that in local culture television is “an institution that the Filipino poor would turn to in times of need and calamity.”

As quarantine persists and policies continue to change, the burden on the remaining journalists to deliver quality news reporting feels heavier with ABS-CBN going off-air. The NTC’s actions also compromises the journalistic integrity of the surviving media outfits, many of whom fear rubbing off the wrong politician and suffering ABS-CBN’s fate.

Even more concerning is how this shutdown puts the livelihoods of the network’s 11,000 workers in peril. Supporters of the administration may rebut that this is the fault of the station. Still, the fact remains that this move raises unemployment levels in an already volatile job market where over a million jobs are already at stake nationwide.

The NTC’s mandate also affects other industries beyond media. Losing the country’s biggest broadcasting network is a huge blow for the 151-billion-peso (around $3 billion) advertising industry, who historically invests as much as 75 per cent of its business into television. This, in turn, disrupts the marketing efforts and strategies of countless companies and may lead to further instability in their respective industries.

Signing off

The ensuing controversy has spurred lawmakers into action. Several senators have filed a resolution seeking to provide ABS-CBN with a temporary provisionary franchise, while NTC executives have been ordered to explain why they shouldn’t be cited in contempt given their decision.

Still, the damage has been done. For each day they remain off-air, ABS-CBN loses 35 million pesos (around $696,000). The Philippine Stock Exchange has even suspended trading of the network’s stocks. Coupled with the lack of advertising revenue, this leaves the broadcaster unable to service its debts and places its long-term stability and decades-long status as a Filipino cultural institution in jeopardy.

(Jeremiah Capacillo is an Investvine contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

The Philippine government’s closing down of the country’s biggest broadcast network is the latest attack in its decades-long war against and persecution of the press. By Jeremiah Capacillo Picture: Basilio H. Sepe for ABS-CBN News As someone born in the Philippines during the mid '90s, I never knew a time without the presence of ABS-CBN. Founded in 1946 after the war, the television network over the decades has become part and parcel of daily Filipino life. As a child, I’d play with my toy cars on the dining table while the news programme Magandang Gabi Bayan played in the background;...

The Philippine government’s closing down of the country’s biggest broadcast network is the latest attack in its decades-long war against and persecution of the press.

By Jeremiah Capacillo

Picture: Basilio H. Sepe for ABS-CBN News

As someone born in the Philippines during the mid ’90s, I never knew a time without the presence of ABS-CBN. Founded in 1946 after the war, the television network over the decades has become part and parcel of daily Filipino life. As a child, I’d play with my toy cars on the dining table while the news programme Magandang Gabi Bayan played in the background; on weekend mornings, I’d wake up early to watch Tagalog-dubbed versions of cartoons like Doraemon and Voltes V. As a teenager in the late aughts, I’d tune in to the 6pm news show TV Patrol and watch as the flurry of headlines and commentary slowly shaped my political consciousness.

Sadly, the country’s largest broadcasting network may soon be a relic of the past. On the evening of May 5, ABS-CBN went off the air after a years-long battle with the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to renew its broadcasting franchise. Granted with a 25-year term franchise in March 1995, the media conglomerate has unsuccessfully attempted to file for franchise renewal since 2014 – all while facing an avalanche of opposition from various lawmakers and government bodies.

Critics claim that the factors behind the network’s shutdown lies far beyond mere technicalities. In 2016, ABS-CBN aired an election advertisement lambasting then presidential-candidate Rodrigo Duterte’s public and rampant use of foul language. This didn’t sit well with President Duterte, whose ire against the network is well-documented:

  • In March 2017, Duterte went after ABS-CBN and the newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer, lambasting both for what he claims is their “unfair reporting.”
  • In May 2017, the president called the network out during a public speech. He ended the speech in a less-than-dignified manner: “You want to know my sentiments? F*ck you.”
  • In August 2018, Duterte stated that he wouldn’t interfere with ABS-CBN and their quest to renew their franchise. However, he also claimed: “If I had it my way, I wouldn’t give it back to you.”
  • In December 2019, Duterte threatened ABS-CBN on live TV, saying “I’ll see to it that you’re out.” In another speech given the same month, he advised the network’s owners to sell their company as renewal of their franchise application remains doubtful.

The NTC’s cease-and-desist order halted ABS-CBN’s broadcasts in both radio and television. This effectively shuts down the media conglomerate’s hard work in entertaining the masses, shaping public opinion and delivering hard facts for the first time in decades – a massive loss for contemporary Filipino culture.

However, some feel that ABS-CBN deserved its fate. Earlier in February, solicitor-general Jose Calida accused the network of “going beyond the scope of its legislative franchise” and violating constitutional bans against foreign ownership (ABS-CBN has denied these allegations). Several ardent government supporters also feel that the media conglomerate’s news reporting leans biased in favor of opposition sentiment.

Nevertheless, the shutdown caused a massive public uproar. Several Filipinos took online to lambast the move as an attack against journalists and the free press. The Commission of Human Rights condemned the NTC’s actions, adding that it sends a “chilling effect” on free media and sets a dangerous precedent on freedom of expression. The shutdown also garnered the attention of several international media outlets. Undeniably, ABS-CBN’s going off air is a dark watershed moment for Philippine press freedom.

“Most dangerous country for journalists”

This isn’t the first time ABS-CBN has had their rights infringed upon – the last time around, it was 1972 and the dictator Ferdinand Marcos has just declared martial law. Under Proclamation No. 1081, the government seized control of the broadcast network and placed its then-president Eugenio Lopez in jail without trial. In 1973, the fascist regime revamped the station into a government propaganda network named BBC-2. It would take 14 years and a people power revolution until ABS-CBN regained control of its station.

Over the years, the Philippines has proven time and again its inhospitality towards the press. In November 2009, 32 media workers and journalists were brutally slain in what has come to be known as the Maguindanao massacre. To this day, the killings remain to be the single deadliest event ever recorded by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The next decade brought little reform. In 2019, the government arrested Rappler founder and executive editor Maria Ressa on charges of cyber libel. Rappler, an online news website that has been vocal against the current administration, has been subjected to much harassment. In 2017, Duterte even falsely alleged that the media outfit was owned and funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency.

The country’s poor track record on press freedom has been criticised by various international watchdogs. In 2018, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) named the Philippines as the deadliest country for journalists in Southeast Asia; in 2019, the CPJ ranked the country as the fifth deadliest in the world for media workers.

And lest anyone underestimates the gravity of these stats, consider this: The IFJ reports that 12 journalists have been murdered under the Duterte administration.

Press persecution amid a pandemic

Complicating matters further is the fact of how all of this manipulation is happening while the coronavirus pandemic unfolds. Many are enraged over how the government seems to prioritize shutting down ABS-CBN even though it already received much criticism regarding their slow relief response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Furthermore, the shutdown comes at a most inopportune time when the need for access to information is at its most crucial. Jonathan Ong, a global digital media professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that in local culture television is “an institution that the Filipino poor would turn to in times of need and calamity.”

As quarantine persists and policies continue to change, the burden on the remaining journalists to deliver quality news reporting feels heavier with ABS-CBN going off-air. The NTC’s actions also compromises the journalistic integrity of the surviving media outfits, many of whom fear rubbing off the wrong politician and suffering ABS-CBN’s fate.

Even more concerning is how this shutdown puts the livelihoods of the network’s 11,000 workers in peril. Supporters of the administration may rebut that this is the fault of the station. Still, the fact remains that this move raises unemployment levels in an already volatile job market where over a million jobs are already at stake nationwide.

The NTC’s mandate also affects other industries beyond media. Losing the country’s biggest broadcasting network is a huge blow for the 151-billion-peso (around $3 billion) advertising industry, who historically invests as much as 75 per cent of its business into television. This, in turn, disrupts the marketing efforts and strategies of countless companies and may lead to further instability in their respective industries.

Signing off

The ensuing controversy has spurred lawmakers into action. Several senators have filed a resolution seeking to provide ABS-CBN with a temporary provisionary franchise, while NTC executives have been ordered to explain why they shouldn’t be cited in contempt given their decision.

Still, the damage has been done. For each day they remain off-air, ABS-CBN loses 35 million pesos (around $696,000). The Philippine Stock Exchange has even suspended trading of the network’s stocks. Coupled with the lack of advertising revenue, this leaves the broadcaster unable to service its debts and places its long-term stability and decades-long status as a Filipino cultural institution in jeopardy.

(Jeremiah Capacillo is an Investvine contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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