Five months after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made his third public threat to shut down local broadcaster ABS-CBN, the network was ordered to halt operations.
Off The Air
Under Philippine law, broadcasters must secure congressional franchises in order to operate. ABS-CBN’s franchise, which was approved through Republic Act No. 7966 on March 30, 1995, was up for renewal this year in the Congress. However, multiple bills calling for the franchise renewal remained pending in the House of Representatives for years. House Bill No. 4349, which seeks to renew the franchise granted to ABS-CBN for another 25 years, remained at the House committee level.
On May 5, the National Telecommunications Commission issued a cease-and-desist order to the Philippines’ largest broadcasting network following the expiration of its broadcast franchise. ABS-CBN officially signed off at 8 p.m. local time that night right after airing its evening news broadcast. While the order effectively shuts down the media giant’s television and radio operations, its cable news channel and digital operations will continue.
The closure, which came while the country reels with growing unemployment due to the global pandemic, reportedly resulted in 11,000 employees losing their jobs. This marked the first time the network had been off the air since 1986, when former dictator Ferdinand Marcos ordered its closure during martial law in 1972.
Following the network’s shutdown, social media erupted with posts criticizing the Duterte government, with many accusing the current administration of curtailing press freedom. Posts with the hashtags #DefendPressFreedom #StandWithABSCBN and #NoToABSCBNShutdown began circulating on Twitter and Facebook.
— AM (@aunomayo) May 6, 2020
— Lanie🙏💜 (@RaynieUk) May 6, 2020
Duterte’s Attitude with ABS-CBN
Duterte’s office has denied involvement in the order, noting that the decision was entirely up to the commission. However, it cannot be denied that Duterte has been very vocal about his intention to close down the network in past public pronouncements.
As far back as March 2017, Duterte was cursing at ABS-CBN and its owners for allegedly writing unfair news about him, saying it publishes trash. “Someday – I am not scaring them – but someday, karma will come,” he said in Filipino.
A month later, Duterte accused the network of conning him by failing to show his political advertisements during the 2016 campaign season. He then said he will file a complaint and would “block” ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal. Another threat from the president was issued in May 2017 saying he will file multiple charges against the network, reports Rappler.
Civil rights experts have pointed out that such warnings against ABS-CBN was tantamount to a threat to press freedom.
Among the most recent threats was back in December when Duterte warned that the station will lose its franchise after it expires in March 2020.
“Your franchise will end next year. If you expect it to be renewed, I’m sorry, you’re out. I will see to it that you’re out.”
Like in his previous rants against the network, Duterte accused it of biased reporting against him and favoring politicians from the political opposition.
Congress Sat on Franchise Renewal for Years
Nueva Ecija Representative Micaela Violago filed House Bill 4349 in the 17th Congress to renew the network’s franchise in November 2016. When the 17th Congress adjourned sine die (Latin meaning “without assigning a day for a further meeting”), no resolution on the matter was passed.
In the 18th Congress of the Philippines, the current meeting of the country’s national legislature composed of the Senate and House of Representatives, at least 12 lawmakers filed their own versions for a new franchise of the network. House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, former running mate of Duterte in the 2016 elections, made assurances that Congress will tackle the franchise with fairness. No resolution was passed until ABS-CBN was ordered to stop operations on Tuesday.
Other lawmakers have since openly blamed Cayetano for the network’s closure, Business Mirror reports.
In a statement, Buhay partylist Rep. Lito Atienza challenged Cayetano to immediately act on this problem:
“He [Cayetano] will have a lot to explain one day. It may not be today, but later on, this issue will hound him because he was the one who did not do his job. Even the President kept on reminding him to do your job… What did we do? Nothing,” Atienza said.
“Congress should be ready to vote on this issue, it being the only body authorized to act on this crucial matter,” he was quoted as saying. “This is definitely a case of bad timing in closing down one of the more, if not the most, effective channels of communication and accurate information, especially in this time of a national health crisis.”
Meanwhile, Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman slammed Cayetano for not only delaying the House hearings on the network’s franchise renewal, but for also claiming that a provisional authority issued by NTC would have been enough for the network to keep operating beyond May 4.
“The National Telecommunication Commission must not be used as the scapegoat for the patent failure of the leadership of the House of Representatives to resolutely push for the seasonable renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise,” Lagman said. “I have repeatedly warned that Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano’s proffered solution for NTC to grant ABS-CBN a provisional authority to operate, despite the lapse of its franchise, is against the law and jurisprudence.”
Both Atienza and Lagman were among the authors of the bills renewing the network’s franchise.
Hands Are Tied
On Wednesday May 6, presidential spokesman Harry Roque claimed that President Duterte is neutral on the franchise renewal of broadcast network ABS-CBN, reports the Philippine Star. He noted that the president prefers members of the House of Representatives to vote “as their conscience dictates.”
“He will not take it against them if the franchise bill is passed by Congress or not. He is completely neutral on the issue. Vote as your conscience dictates,” Roque said. “For as long as there is no constitutional infirmity, then he will not object to the law.”
According to Roque, even if Duterte wanted to approve the franchise renewal, the “President’s hands are tied.”
Not Like Marcos
Roque and chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo both pointed the blame to lawmakers, citing their failure to act on bills seeking franchise renewal of ABS-CBN.
Rejecting comparisons to Marcos’ actions to suppress the media during martial law, Panelo said the current situation is very different.
“When martial law was declared, Marcos had the power to close all telecommunications. The President does not have power over this franchise issue,” Panelo said.