The ABS-CBN tower viewed from Tomas Morato Avenue in Quezon City, Philippines. Photo by Diana G. Mendoza
Manila-- A specter of martial law. A move to fully snuff out press freedom and freedom of expression. A final blow to democracy. The chills brought by the shutdown of ABS-CBN Channel 2, the Philippines' largest TV network, were felt across the country as its final broadcast aired at 7:52 pm local time, on May 5, 2020, just as the curfew was enforced in Metro Manila and the entire Luzon island under the Covid-19 lockdown.
“We can’t even hug each other,” Ces Orena-Drilon, one of the network’s veteran broadcast journalists, twitted about the media workers’ observance of social distancing, a Covid-19 precautionary health measure, as they wept and became emotional inside the newsrooms when the station ID and the playing of the Philippine national anthem trailed the final broadcast, before TV screens of Filipinos watching the channel went black.
The closure was prompted by a legal cease-and-desist order of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) for the station to stop its TV and radio broadcasting after its 25-year broadcast franchise expired the previous day.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Observers saw this move as one of the government of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “traitorous” and “unfair” way to silence media, as it was preceded by similar actions in the past, such as Duterte’s harassment of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler and other media outlets that he deemed critical of him.
Former opposition senator Antonio Trillanes, in a social media post, said Duterte’s low tolerance of criticism has been proven early on when he hinted upon becoming president that he ordered the killing of Jun Pala, a popular radio commentator and his critic when he was still mayor of Davao City.
Trillanes said the more sinister plot behind the TV shutdown is for its stock market values to drop, causing the Lopez family, owner of the media conglomerate, to sell it to Duterte’s followers and businessmen-friends, who will then have control over the content of the network. This will include early promotions and campaigning for Duterte’s colleagues to win in the 2022 elections.
The franchise expiration was rooted on the refusal of members of the House of Representatives, majority of whom are allied with Duterte, to tackle several bills, some filed since 2016, that sought to renew ABS-CBN's franchise. The NTC, which previously gave the assurance that ABS-CBN would be allowed to operate until 2022 while its franchise bills were still in Congress, abruptly ordered the shutdown, citing the license expiration. The NTC said TV network can appeal for its return to the airwaves.
Duterte had repeatedly threatened to block the franchise renewal over his unaired political advertisements during the 2016 elections. Last year, he urged the owners to just sell the company. This was after one of the network’s managers apologized over the unaired political ads during a Senate hearing.
The Philippines’ longest-running media conglomerate that saw its beginnings in the 1950s has been shut down during the imposition of Martial Law by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. This would be its second.
Media watchdogs such as the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility lauded the Filipinos’ show of fortitude in decrying the shutdown of the TV station in the midst of a pandemic. "Filipinos show that degree of political maturity when their obligation to public service and public welfare are the only paramount mandate,” the CMFR said in a social media statement.
Mons Flores, a young man who has followed Cardo, one of the characters in the network’s widely popular drama series Ang Probinsyano, said the TV shutdown saddens his already gloomy stay-at- home weeks under the emergency quarantine. “They also shut down my hero,” he said.