July 10, 2020 will now be remembered in Philippine media history as the day media giant ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal application was rejected by 70 members of the House Committee on Legislative Franchises at the Lower House, where President Rodrigo Duterte enjoys a “supermajority.”

A caravan protest from the House of Representatives to the ABS-CBN headquarters gate at Sgt. Esguerra in Quezon City was held to push for the call to bring back ABS-CBN.

Journalists, ABS-CBN employees, and supporters lit candles on this day that many considered a dark day in press freedom, in one of the oldest democracies and freest press in Asia.

Netizens joined in the call “Ibalik ang ABS-CBN” and “Save ABS-CBN workers” that went viral online.

Duterte has been vocal about pushing for the network’s closure since he sat on the presidency, alleging bias against him in their coverage. Malacañang Palace, however, washed its hands clean after the deed was done.  

The network’s franchise expired May 4 last year, and the National Telecommunications Commission issued a cease-and-desist order for the network’s free-to-air radio and television stations the following day. They have been off the air since then but continued on online and cable channel platforms.

Thirteen hearings were conducted which ran on various issues and allegations of labor and tax violations along with foreign ownership control in mass media, where various government offices cleared ABS-CBN. Despite that, “the will of the congress” prevailed in the vote to deny the franchise. The names of those who voted against the franchise renewal have yet to be disclosed by the House of Representatives.

This was the second time that the media giant was forced to shut down, sans martial law. The first was during the imposition of Martial Law of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr.

Worst tragedy

“Napakalagim na trahedya” [very horrible tragedy] is how Bayan Muna representative Carlo Zarate would describe the network’s forced closure. Zarate is among the solons who voted in favor of granting the network’s franchise.

The Makabayan bloc asserted that all facts to appraise ABS-CBN worthy for a 25-year franchise renewal have been presented. However, after more than a hundred hours of hearing, it only took the house committee’s Technical Working Group an hour to deliver the report that the lawmakers deliberated and voted on, said Zarate.

While history repeats itself, Zarate emphasized that there is a lesson to be learned behind tragedies such as these.

“Kung pag-aaralan natin ang kasaysayan, mayroong solusyon, kailangang ‘wag nang maulit ang ganitong patakaran o pangyayari, na mayroong nagmamalabis at mayroong tiraniyang namamayagpag,” Zarate said.

[If we study history, there is a solution for this to not happen again that abuse like this or a tyranny prevails.]

The people must continually fight for their rights and for true democracy in this country, he said.

A growing crisis

“Malinaw po na hindi lamang ito atake sa press freedom kundi atake sa trabaho at kabuhayan ng manggagawang Piipino,” Defend Jobs Philippines spokesperson Christian Lloyd Magsoy stressed.

[This is clearly not only an attack on press freedom but also an attack on the jobs and livelihood of Filipino workers.]

He cited that the network’s closure had only worsened the economic crisis, with around half of 11,000 retrenched ABS-CBN employees.

ABS-CBN needed to close all its regional stations and lay off its workers after four months of being off the air. The regional networks aired their last on August 28 and the first batch of retrenchments came by August 31.

Magsoy noted that the number of affected is multiplied by those who lost their jobs, as they would also include family members.

The fight goes on

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) decried that the media giant’s shutdown is an assault on press freedom and abuse of power, bringing the Philippines down two places on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index now ranking 132nd out of 180 countries.

“The pandemic year has seen an increase in threats against and intimidation of journalists. In 2020, there were 20 libel cases filed, 22 cases of intimidation, and 4 killings documented. The libel cases make up nearly half of all cases reported in 2016 and intimidation rose by 43 percent since March 2020,” NUJP said in a statement.

NUJP has rallied support for ABS-CBN as the franchise expiration loomed last year, led by their then-Chairperson Nonoy Espina who passed away on July 7 due to liver cancer.

“Our call today is #IbalikAngABSCBN but this is part of a wider call to stop the attacks on media and to defend press freedom and democracy,” NUJP said.

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