The great silencing
At exactly 7:50 p.m. last Tuesday, Noli de Castro, lead anchor of “TV Patrol,” ABS-CBN’s early evening newscast, bid the televiewing public farewell.
The TV screen then went black—a startling moment that brought back memories of the morning of Sept. 23, 1972, when people woke up and found that all TV channels were showing nothing but “snow.”
The 1972 “Great Silence” was one of the offshoots of martial law. Tuesday’s silencing of ABS-CBN was, on the other hand, the result of an order from the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) for the network to “cease and desist” after its license to operate expired May 4.
This in the midst of perhaps the most difficult challenge confronting the nation: the COVID-19 pandemic. With more than 10,000 infected and 658 dead, large swathes of the country are locked down under an “enhanced community quarantine” or the fairly looser “general” community quarantine.
Millions of jobs and earning opportunities have been lost or suspended, leading to families and entire communities facing starvation, with anger and anxiety simmering just below the surface. Couple this with the increasingly repressive measures employed by law enforcers, the uneven distribution of government financial assistance, and spotty relief efforts, and you have a recipe for social ferment. Certainly, a full agenda for government attention and action.
And still the Duterte administration found the time — and the gumption — to stir the simmering pot further by closing down the biggest and certainly one of the oldest broadcasting institutions in the country.
Ultimately, there is no mystery as to why this came to pass. In 2016, Nueva Ecija Rep. Micaela Violago filed a bill in Congress seeking a fresh 25-year franchise for the network, but this and similar measures had a formidable obstacle to hurdle: the President’s outsize pique at the network.
In expletive-laden rants, President Duterte accused ABS-CBN of “biased” reporting and of “estafa” for allegedly failing to return the payment for an unaired campaign ad. He then vowed to block the network’s bid for a new franchise, a threat he would issue repeatedly. Last December, Mr. Duterte even “advised” the network’s owners to “just sell” ABS-CBN, since he said it was doubtful the franchise would be renewed.
But in hearings held last year in the Senate, representatives of the network refuted many of the President’s charges, and proved it had been faithfully paying its taxes and duties to the government, as attested by different government agencies.
Last Sunday, which also happened to be World Press Freedom Day, Solicitor General Jose Calida made a last-ditch effort to get ABS-CBN off the air, demanding that NTC not issue a provisional permit — action suggested by both the House and the Senate, and concurred in by the Department of Justice —a llowing the network to operate while its franchise application was still pending. Then came the “Tuesday surprise.”
The closure order threatens the jobs of some 11,000 workers employed by the network and its subsidiaries. This means 11,000 more workers and their families joining the lengthening list of jobless Filipinos.
“This act of NTC is totally contrary to law and is a grave abuse of discretion,” Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said. “First, there is enough precedent… that provisional authority can be issued while the application for renewal is pending.” Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri added that he “knows for a fact that there are many stations operating on provisional authority.”
In fact, the NTC not only ignored such precedents, but brazenly broke its word to Congress leaders that it would abide by the legislators’ collective position, supported by the DOJ, to let ABS-CBN be at this time pending work on its franchise renewal.
Here is what NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba said on March 10 in a hearing of the House committee on legislative franchises: “The NTC will follow the latest advice of the DOJ and let ABS-CBN continue operations based on equity. We are very comforted by the fact that both chairs of Congress are aligned with the DOJ’s and NTC’s thinking on the issue…”
But after Calida’s public browbeating of the office, the NTC conveniently lost its “thinking” and reversed course, ordering the immediate closure of ABS-CBN even as Malacañang was reopening Pogos (Philippine offshore gaming operators), and even as the broadcast giant was playing a critical role not just in disseminating information about COVID-19, but also in keeping citizens engaged and entertained as they endure a harsh, often incoherently run lockdown.
An important voice has been silenced. It may have been done in accordance with the technicalities of law, but the assault on press freedom is clear and the chill of repression unmistakable — a foreboding of worse things to come.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.