The recent shutdown of broadcast giant ABS-CBN is but one of the pieces of mounting evidence—arguably the most damning—of how fragile the state of media freedom in the Philippines has become under President Rodrigo Duterte.
Ordered closed on May 5, ironically two days after World Press Freedom Day, the 66-year-old radio and television network is an interesting case study of how a standard, straightforward application for renewal of a legislative franchise can easily turn into a web of complexities and nightmares spun by persistent shutdown threats from a populist president who has a personal ax to grind.
ABS-CBN’s troubles began when it ran a political advertisement against Duterte and then failed to air the ads he paid because it was close to the 2016 elections. The network’s critical coverage of Duterte’s brutal campaign against illegal drugs further riled him up.
On various occasions, Duterte has accused ABS-CBN of fraud and swindling and publishing “trash”; lashed out at its owners, the Lopezes, for being “oligarchs”; and threatened to block the network’s franchise renewal and close it down. Yet his narratives on the money he had paid ABS-CBN for the ads vary—from the network failing to return the money after elections to the network returning it but he refusing to accept it.
In the Philippines, ABS-CBN and other broadcast companies are classified as public utilities that must apply with Congress for a franchise to operate. Every franchise is covered by a specific law. ABS-CBN, for example, was granted its 25-year franchise, which expired on May 4, through Republic Act 7966.
Like appropriation, revenue and local bills, franchise bills originate exclusively from the House of Representatives. Only upon approval at the House do they make their way to the Senate of a bicameral Philippine Congress.
Alas, ABS-CBN’s application has been stuck at the House of Representatives since 2014. Packed with Duterte allies since 2016, the chamber had seen no need to schedule a hearing on the application—until a Senate committee convened one in late February. That left the House without a choice but to follow suit.
By then, the network was already reeling from a court case the solicitor general had filed with the Supreme Court seeking to revoke its franchise for supposed violations. It was accused of violating a constitutional ban on foreign ownership of the media and launching a subscription service and a channel without approval from the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).
Different government agencies subsequently cleared the network of violations at the Senate hearing. A band-aid solution to the network’s predicament also emerged: The NTC told senators it could issue ABS-CBN a provisional authority to operate as it had done so for other utilities awaiting renewal of their franchises.
The NTC would give the same commitment at the House’s first committee hearing on ABS-CBN’s franchise application in March. At the same time, the commission, on the advice of the justice secretary, urged Congress to issue a resolution for a provisional authority. The two chambers obliged.
All seemed well, especially when Duterte accepted the apology the network made at the Senate hearing over the non-airing of the ad.
Then, on the afternoon of May 5, the NTC did the exact opposite of what it promised it would. Instead of a provisional authority, it issued a cease-and-desist order. A few minutes before 8 p.m. that day, the network’s 42 television stations, 10 digital broadcast channels and 23 radio stations, including DZMM radio, stop broadcasting.
There is still no telling if and when ABS-CBN can get back on the air, caught as it is in the crossfire of clashing views and positions of public officials and institutions.
On May 7, ABS-CBN went to the Supreme Court to contest its closure. The tribunal, however, has chosen not to let the network immediately resume operations, opting instead on May 19 to give the NTC and Congress 10 days to comment on its petition.
In the executive branch, the Office of the Solicitor General and the Justice Department don’t even see eye to eye on the issue.
The justice secretary has consistently said ABS-CBN can continue to operate for “equity considerations” due to a gap in the law. He meant the absence of law on the rights of a franchisee which has a renewal application pending in Congress.
Yet it was the solicitor general who warned the NTC on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, that it would be encroaching on Congress’ prerogative to issue broadcast franchises if it issued a provisional authority, a possible ground for graft charges.
The Palace has cleverly distanced itself from the controversy, saying Duterte cannot meddle with the NTC, an independent quasi-judicial regulatory agency, and that the ball was now with Congress.
It is worth noting, though, that the supposedly independent NTC initially followed the guidance of the justice secretary when it appeared before Congress. When it issued the closure order, it admitted it heeded the solicitor general’s warning.
Meanwhile, the House, in whose hands ABS-CBN’s fate lies, has again somersaulted on ABS-CBN’s franchise. Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, who has slammed the network in the past, is the best example.
The Speaker stunned fellow lawmakers and the public when he filed a bill on May 13 seeking to grant ABS-CBN a provisional franchise until October 30 this year. He cited the urgency of having the network resume operations during the COVID-19 crisis.
Barely a week later, he withdrew the bill and called on legislators to instead speed up hearings on the 12 pending bills related to the network’s franchise. The reason he gave was still pandemic related: The franchise issue, he said, had become “so divisive” and “so polluted” it was distracting Congress from the COVID-19 crisis and other pressing concerns.
Congress goes on recess on June 4 and will reconvene on July 27 when Duterte delivers his annual state of the nation address.
What ABS-CBN has been going through is starkly different from the experience of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), whose members have been critical of Duterte’s policies, especially the war on drugs. The contrast reveals the unstable policy environment franchise holders navigate.
CBCP’s 25-year broadcast franchise expired in August 2017. Congress approved its application only in March 2019. Despite the absence of a new franchise, government, including the NTC, never stopped CBCP’s 29 radio stations from operating. On April 22, 2019, the CBCP finally got its franchise: The bill automatically lapsed into law when Duterte failed to sign or veto it 30 days receiving it from Congress.
Indeed, ABS-CBN’s closure was, as one writer aptly puts it, “highhanded and despotic, with the State using our laws to circumvent free speech.”
Since its founding in 1953, ABS-CBN was shut down only once—when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial rule in September 1972. The network reopened in 1986, a few months after the world’s first people power revolution restored democracy in the Philippines.
Although ABS-CBN continues to operate its cable news channel and its online and social media accounts, the closure of its radio and television stations comes at an inopportune time: the peak of the novel coronavirus crisis.
Because of the shutdown, remote communities served only by a lone free-TV channel—ABS-CBN Channel 2 on free TV—have been deprived of access to information. Prior to that, the pandemic has already led to the temporary closure of cash-strapped community news organizations or reduced news programming and print runs.
ABS-CBN’s closure has also dealt a severe blow to media pluralism at a time when government has found the lockdown a convenient excuse to control the flow of information. Questions raised at government virtual pressers are screened and limited due to time. Media accreditation, considered by media groups as an add-on mechanism of bureaucratic control, is required in the capital. Journalists have complained of being barred from covering events of communities by a number of local governments who use the quarantine as pretext.
Were ABS-CBN to close for good, a less competitive media environment would arise, not to mention the loss of jobs for its 11,000 employees. Shares of the network have fallen from PHP 48.30 since Duterte assumed the presidency in July 2016 to PHP 17.50 when the NTC ordered its closure.
At present, ABS-CBN and another leading network, GMA, corner around 80 percent of audience and market share. The Philippine Competition Commission earlier projected that ABS-CBN’s closure would raise GMA’s share to 55 percent.
Since its closure, attacks on ABS-CBN—and media in general—by detractors have escalated. Trolls continue to dish out digital disinformation and power the #YestoABSCBNShutdown campaign. The Philippines has been identified by Reporters Without Borders as among the countries where state troll armies use the weapon of disinformation.
Government agencies have pushed or amplified false narratives about ABS-CBN. The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, in particular, has red-tagged some of the network’s journalists, linking them to a supposed plot of communist rebels to oust Duterte. The tactic endangers the lives of journalists. Duterte has suspended talks with communist rebels and recently put up rewards for information leading to the arrest of their leaders. The Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing are considered as foreign terrorist organizations in the United States.
It goes without saying that the closure and attacks on ABS-CBN have served to deepen the “chilling effect” on the Philippine media. If government can do it to the country’s biggest network, what more the smaller players?
Since Duterte came into office, media groups have tracked 171 cases of threats and attacks against the press. They range from website attacks and online or SMS harassment to physical assault and killings. Fifteen journalists have been killed during his presidency. These have driven the Philippines’ ranking in the latest World Press Freedom Index two notches down to 136th.
The Philippine media is known to be highly polarized. But in the face of intensifying attacks, including on ABS-CBN, a growing number of journalists are casting aside rivalries to stand up for press freedom and keep the democratic space from further shrinking. After all, an attack on one is an attack on all.
*Kapamilya: It means member of family, also a Filipino slang term for someone who is addicted to the shows and celebrities of the ABS-CBN Corporation whose slogan is 'Kapamilya Forever'.