Media Shutdown During a Pandemic

09.05.2020 - Manila, Philippines - Erlie Lopez

Media Shutdown During a Pandemic
A satellite dish at the ABS-CBN Compound in Quezon City. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was as if the pandemic Covid-19 was not yet inflicting enough deadly harm and threat to a population of over 110 million and a nightmarish uncertainty on an economy still lagging behind in the Asian region. . . It was as if the community quarantine locking people down in their homes to wait for rationed food packs and cash assistance as a way to flatten the curve did not require enough sacrifice especially among the born poor and the hardworking middle class. . .

May 5, around four in the afternoon, breaking news sneaked into Facebook and other platforms that the National Telecommunications Commission issued a cease-and-desist order to ABS-CBN media conglomerate effective immediately. The network had been the leading and most- followed source of information on virus status and combat guidelines from the health department as well as on rules and sanctions on the lockdown enforcement by the local government department and the national police unit. Most watched too for its entertainment content, the freeze on Monday-Friday teleseryes (drama series), a six-day noontime fun show, and weekend musicals would also deepen the deprivation of families, especially the restless and bored inside shabby quarters in the city slums and in the very laid-back barrios across 7,000 islands. Disregarding the timing, cruel as it is, ABS-CBN has a nearing 75-year history of broadcast journalism crowned by myriad awards as station of the year and separately for talent excellence in a widely varied menu of programs, anchors and actors, creative and production resources. Records also bear that it has become a solid institution in the country – from industry leadership to corporate stature that translates to employment (11,000 plus) and tax incomes to the government to social citizenship programs benefiting the most hurting sectors during natural disasters, health crises, and even normal times.

The end of a 25-year franchise (May 4) was the legal starting point, with renewal (or rejection) as the only legal action. What smaller companies with telecommunications operations had easily and expectedly hurdled, however loomed as the non-negotiable, in-convertible finis to the media network’s life. Despite tedious efforts made by the company to respond to various issues raised since 2016. Despite legal facts exposed to a rapt public during a Congress hearing in March which showed long delay on the part of the House of Representatives to act on the company’s formal request of franchise renewal. Despite the NTC agreement in the said hearing to grant a provisional authority if Congress could not yet make a decision on the franchise renewal. The possible penalties to be imposed should violations be seen on piecemeal review looked to the gallery like a mere slap on the wrist. A capital punishment of death is out of proportion, a senator noted.

In such baffling developments, politics can be the only viable suspect. Rodrigo Duterte, the widely perceived authoritarian president, is on record as a would-be Pontius Pilate to the network. “I will see to it that ABS-CBN will not be able to renew its franchise,” paraphrasing his series of fulminations that peaked last December with a taunt that the network should just sell it. By the tone and repetition, that was certainly not unlike his usual harsh and threatening jokes. Anti-drug campaign through extra-judicial killings mostly of poor users and small pushers, who can forget?

The statement alone is so telling, whatever the Solicitor General said of the quo warranto petition he filed with the Supreme Court in 2018 and the procrastination of his staunch ally, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the legal office to act on franchises prior to elevation to the Senate in a bi-cameral Congress. So determined he sounded each time, that attempts by his spokespersons to clear him following the backlash from an incensed nation with a declaration that the president is neutral only became a butt of jokes.

From there alone too, speculations had been running wild on the president’s agenda.

It is media censorship, and in a larger scope, killing press freedom. The University of the Philippines (UP College of Mass Communications) has decried that “the current administration demonstrates the lengths it will go to silence media voices.” A protest rally followed through this afternoon in their campus, in a lockdown manner. Journalism professor and pillar, Luis V. Teodoro, further sees a bigger picture than the network’s particular shutdown. “It would also be a form of censorship known as prior restraint by threatening other media organizations with the same fate should they continue to observe the fundamental journalistic principle of truth-telling and the responsibility of holding government to account.” Such is strange bedfellow journalism to a dictatorship.

It is a runup to the 2022 presidential election. The Davao Group in the president’s province where he first exhibited an authoritarian style as mayor with hard-hitting journalists reported as killed, is allegedly set to buy the network. Duterte’s taunt last December was a tactic to bring stock prices down to facilitate the group’s purchase at a good price. But why buy? Ownership by them will silence the critical press and ensure an easy victory for the administration’s line-up. A hold on power, a dictatorship without end.

From the first two, we can deduce a more frightening third scenario: support for the creeping invasion by China. The pro-China policy declared at the start of his presidency in the second-half of 2016 has then unravelled in the government programs. Signaled by his repudiation of the international ruling on the dispute over the West Philippine Sea which favored the country over disputant China, it has moved to regular instances of putting China’s interest first over that of Filipinos. A government-owned and controlled media which will keep the president’s engine running for as long as he wants, for himself and his anointed successors, is an alignment to Xi Jingping’s communist China which has killed freedom of the press.

Maybe, surprised by an intense and overwhelming outrage and support by a mix of devoted audience, journalism vanguards, and democratic warriors under a very restraining Co-vid lockdown environment, participants in the mess are now on a finger-pointing mode which disgusts the public even more. However, watchers grant that it is an eyeball- to- eyeball situation between Duterte and the Lopezes who own the network which will resolve matters.

To the signature Duterte braggadocio, the descendants of Eugenio Lopez Sr., whom Dictator Ferdinand Marcos drove out of his dominant and oppositionist broadcast station upon the declaration of martial law in 1972, have reacted with their own signature poise, civility, and low-key spunk. May 5, just nearly four hours after the NTC order, at the closing of the most trusted TV Patrol news program, the network held a class act of a shutdown. Carlo Lopez Katigbak, president of ABS-CBN, just like in his cool- and-collected stance at that Congress hearing last March which drew star-like admiration, announced the network’s compliant shutdown. And left the audience with a far-from-final good-bye: Hanggang sa muli… Kapamilya (Until then… fellow member of the family).

After the shutdown, the network filed for a TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) with the Supreme Court. That, plus the migration of some programs to available cable and online platforms greatly cheered by an audience passionately reacting to the media shutdown, is a calming pause in the tension. Surely, the country’s largest media network will not go down without an arduous fight against weaponized laws and bully tactics. With confidence rooted on its grand bounce from the ashes of the first dictatorial Marcos regime, total assets worth over 84 billion pesos, and the founder’s mission of public service. And, boosted by the heartbeat of its Filipino audience worldwide, ABS-CBN may be looking at an even better season. And the Philippines will be equally jubilant in passing yet another test on its restored democracy and press freedom.

Footnote: 

The broadcast industry in the Philippines is dominated by  two major networks. The cease and desist order and shutdown of ABC-CBN will leave just one other network operating if the franchise is not renewed by the Congress. The sole authority to grant and renew franchises lies with the legislative branch of Congress.  Despite prior hearings to address issues and concerns related to the franchise renewal, Congress, which is largely composed of members allied with the President, has not acted upon ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal in a timely manner. Because of the President’s tirades against ABC-CBN, repeated time and again, observers question the Duterte administration’s motives for filing a quo warranto by the solicitor general and Congress dragging its feet on this matter. The situation is compounded by the fact that, in the past, other lesser telecommunications companies have been allowed to continue operating pending Congress renewal of their franchise. 

 

Categories: Asia, Culture and Media
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