Philippines: Government plays a dangerous game with ABS-CBN

ABS-CBN news in the Philippines has been ordered off air in yet another attack on press freedom, writes Nonoy Espina.

ABS-CBN network headquarters in Quezon City in the Metro Manila area on May 5, 2020. Credit: MARIA TAN / AFP

The May 5 shutdown of ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest broadcaster, by the government of President Rodrigo Duterte couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

At 7:46 pm, the network, which had been served a cease and desist order by the National Telecommunications Commission earlier in the day, signed off.

Just like that, as they battled a deadly pandemic, the Filipino people lost a major source of information, as well as entertainment to ward off enforced homestays. More worrisome, in places where ABS-CBN is the only free TV channel they can access, residents there have been literally deprived of information.

Of course, amid job losses as businesses take major hits, 11,000 employees found themselves in dire straits.

And because community quarantines were in place the capital and most everywhere else, people could not take to the streets in protest as they certainly would, had there been no health crisis.

As things are turning out, that was just the start.

On May 8, an inter-agency task force supposed to synchronize efforts to fight communist rebels mounted a black propaganda campaign on social media against ABS-CBN, justifying the shutdown of the network with arguments that included half-truths and outright lied, and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, accusing her of spreading fake news for calling the network’s closure an assault on press freedom and blaming these on President Rodrigo Duterte.

That an anti-insurgency task force, which has also accused the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines of being a rebel “front organization,” now targets a broadcaster and journalist who have earned the ire of the commander-in-chief is nothing if not scary.

After all, the Philippines continues to be one of the deadliest countries for journalists. In fact, about an hour after ABS-CBN signed off, gunmen shot dead radio reporter Cornelio Pepino as he headed home after hosting his program in the central Philippine city of Dumaguete. He was the third journalist murdered there in as many years, the 16th under Duterte, and the 186th since 1986.

For many Filipinos who lived through the brutal 14-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, ABS-CBN’s May 5 signoff was painful déjà vu.

One of the first things Marcos did after he placed the country under martial on September 21, 1972 was to order all media outfits, including ABS-CBN, closed.

As the shock of May 5 turned to outrage, the government and its supporters, including an army of trolls, rolled out their response: “Dura lex, sed lex.” It is harsh, but it is the law.

This was not a press freedom issue, they said. This was government simply enforcing the law.

Wrong. This was government wielding the law as a weapon to silence a critical network. May 5 was the culmination of Duterte’s repeated threats to block the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise.

And as the anti-insurgency task force’s attack on ABS-CBN and Maria Ressa indicate, the government may be pulling all stops to go after the critical media and force them into subservience.

But the community of independent Filipino journalists can be expected to stand their ground.

And there is always the lesson of history to look to.

A dictator once shut down the Philippine media. Everyone knows what happened to him. 

Nonoy Espina is the chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).