Shuttered Philippine Media Giant Ends Regional Broadcasts

Nonoy Espina and Basilio Sepe
Manila and Bacolod, Philippines
2020-08-28
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ABS-CBN ABS-CBN Corp.’s laid off employees and other supporters light candles outside the offices of the network giant in Quezon City, Philippines, Aug. 28, 2020.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

The Philippines’ largest TV and radio network that was forced to shut its free public channels in May went fully dark Friday when its regional stations broadcast their last news reports, a development the Philippine media community called an “avoidable national tragedy” and a further blow to press freedom.

ABS-CBN Corp., which was a thorn in the side of President Rodrigo Duterte because of its unrelenting coverage of his administration’s much-criticized drug war, ended its regional broadcast operations after laying off thousands of employees.

The network’s regional channels went off the air for the final time after more than three decades of serving far-flung communities across the Philippine archipelago.

“It’s a black day for independent media across the Philippines as ABS-CBN News airs its final TV Patrol newscasts in provincial stations then pulls the plug for good after more than three decades,” said the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP), a group that represents all foreign news agencies reporting from Manila, including BenarNews.

Millions of Filipinos outside of the capital Manila have lost “a fast and credible source of news” amid the coronavirus crisis, and “many isolated and disaster prone villages unreached by other networks can dangerously lose their access to national news, including government pronouncements,” FOCAP said.

ABS-CBN had already stopped a majority of its free television and radio operations on May 5, after Congress decided not to renew its 25-year license. Philippine broadcast regulators soon after ordered the network to cease its broadcasts.

Network insiders told BenarNews that the company had to let go of up to 70 percent of its workforce by the end of August. The network said revenue loss following the shuttering of its free broadcasts was the reason for the layoffs.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the May shutdown of ABS-CBN’s free public TV and radio channels had “already deprived people living in areas that could access only their signal,” which made the network their only source of news and information.

Now, the closure of regional stations limits news and public service information flow to communities even in the countryside – from the highland regions of northern Luzon to the southernmost island of Mindanao.

“It is clear that democracy is under siege, by the government no less, as seen in the relentless assaults on the critical and independent media, and the continuing attacks on the people's basic rights and freedoms,” said the NUJP.

Signature campaign calling to renew license

Several media outlets and groups continue to vigorously protest the treatment meted out to ABS-CBN and condemn what they say is the government’s role in ending its operations.

They say the House of Representatives’ committee on legislative franchises, which in July voted overwhelmingly to deny ABS-CBN a new license, is dominated by allies of Duterte, who has over the years repeatedly threatened to shutter the network for criticizing him.

In May, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte had no hand in the decision to not renew ABS-CBN’s license. The granting of a broadcast franchise is the prerogative of the legislature “which like the United States system is separate and independent from the executive branch,” he said.

“We therefore ask those who clamor for the continued operations of the network, whose broadcast franchise had lapsed to lobby before their representatives in the august halls of Congress and make their voices be heard,” Roque said. Duterte “is neutral on the issue.”

Meanwhile, many on social media have been supportive of the network and its employees who have lost their jobs, and many concerned citizens, freedom of speech and press activists are pressuring the government to renew ABS-CBN’s license.

One such initiative is a campaign that aims to collect at least seven million signatures on a petition to pass a law granting ABS-CBN a new franchise.

The AlterMidya Network, a group of independent media members from around the country, called this initiative “an assertion by the Filipino people who cannot tolerate abuses to our constitutionally-guaranteed right to press freedom and free expression.”

The NUJP, too, has urged independent journalists and the Filipino people to “stand together and resist the continued undermining of our laws, of our rights, of our liberties, by the very institutions supposed to protect these.”

“We can, we must, ward off the darkness before it totally descends on us,” NUJP said.

Luis Liwanag in Manila contributed to this report.

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