PH government’s shutdown of ABS-CBN: Déjà vu of martial law’s chilling effect on a free, independent press

IN THE TIME when the global community is attacked by the coronavirus pandemic — an invisible enemy that has killed more than 251,580 people and infected over 3,584,174 — we would think the leaders of the world would unite us all together. With the help and strength of different societal institutions, humankind could win over this invisible enemy and save as many lives as possible.

Unfortunately, that is not what we are seeing right now, here in the United States and back home in the Philippines, when personal and partisan interests take precedence over true genuine public and humanitarian service.

Lights up outside ABS-CBN Broadcasting Center in Quezon City | File photo by Nadia Trinidad / ABS-CBN News

On Tuesday, May 5, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) of the Philippines issued a cease and desist order that prohibits ABS-CBN from continuing its broadcast operations effective immediately. The shutdown covers five AM stations, including DZMM, 18 FM stations and 42 TV stations, including Channels 2 and 23.

This was yet another tactical move of Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida, whose perfect sense of timing was pointed out by CBS News.

As journalists marked World Press Freedom Day, Calida threatened to charge regulators at the NTC with graft. NTC officials have said they had no choice but to follow the law.

Calida had also filed a case in February asking the Supreme Court to revoke the operating franchise of ABS-CBN and its subsidiary ahead of the franchise expiration, for allegedly abusing its franchises and violating a constitutional prohibition on foreign investment in Philippine media.

ABS-CBN denied the allegations in public statements on Calida’s quo warrant petition and in a sworn testimony during a Senate hearing.

As TIME reported, the NTC’s order “caused shock and confusion among lawmakers because the agency’s top officials had agreed to grant a temporary operating license to ABS-CBN while Congress weighs its franchise renewal.”

“Rep. Franz Alvarez, who heads the congressional committee on legislative franchises, told ABS-CBN that he was surprised that the commission backtracked on its pledge. Many senators and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra have agreed that the broadcaster could operate with a temporary license pending renewal of its franchise. Alvarez added that the company’s franchise renewal application would remain active, and the network said it will pursue efforts to reopen.”

CBS News reported that pursuant to Philippine laws, “Congress has sole authority in the Philippines to grant broadcast licenses, but lawmakers in the Lower House, who are overwhelmingly allied with President Rodrigo Duterte, have declined to act on bills seeking the renewal of ABS-CBN’s permit. Duterte has repeatedly stated his disdain for the network and the family who own it.”

Reporting on this news, the Washington Post said, “President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly threatened to close down the network in the past. His office denied that he had a hand in the order, saying the decision was entirely up to the commission.”

CBS News added that “Media organizations [like the Kapisanan ng mag Broadcaster ng Pilipinas] and press freedom advocates call the order for ABS-CBN to stop broadcasting an attack not only on the company, but on freedom of speech and the country’s fragile democracy.”

ABS-CBN News chief Ging Reyes, who last produced a newscast more than a decade ago, is back on the producer’s chair for TV Patrol’s newscast on Tuesday, May 5. The final words from the newscast were from her. | via Jeff Canoy / ABS-CBN News

KBP is a self-regulatory body founded in 1973 that provides its members broadcasting standards to promote professional and ethical standards in Philippine radio and television broadcasting.

In a statement, KBP said as reported by ABS-CBN News online: “ABS-CBN is performing a valuable service to the public in the midst of a public service emergency not only by providing important news and information to keep the public safe and prevent the spread of the coronavirus but also in giving the public much relief from the mental and emotional pressures of quarantine by continuing to broadcast its entertainment programs.”

“Without warning, both the public and the government are deprived of that service. It creates an unnecessary distraction for both government and the private sector from focusing on saving lives and keeping people safe,” it added.

“The KBP urged the government to allow the country’s largest entertainment and media conglomerate to operate under ‘equitable remedy’ while the company’s franchise bills [remain] pending.”

The self-regulatory media organization also called on Congress to expedite deliberation on ABS-CBN’s franchise bills that have languished at the House of Representatives.“The decision is unfair not only to the network and the thousands who depend on the network for their livelihood but, even more important, to the millions of people served by the network through its broadcasting activities.”

The KBP public statement also pointed out how unfair the NTC’s decision has been not only to the network and the thousands who depend on the network for their livelihood but, even more important, to the millions of people served by the network through its broadcasting activities.

ABS-CBN President Carlo Katigbak appealed to people to let their feelings on the closure be “felt, expressed and heard” for the benefit of the network’s more than 11,000 employees and millions of Filipinos who he said need the network’s services “specially now in the worst time of sickness and hunger,” TIME reported.

CBS News reported, that “ABS-CBN is not the first news organization to be on the receiving end of pressure from Duterte’s government. Maria Ressa, who was a correspondent for CNN International and now runs the Manila-based online news service Rappler, is facing close to a dozen court cases.”

This report was in corroborated by TIME: “At least two other media organizations, including a leading newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, have come under attack from Duterte for critical reporting. The government separately accused an online news organization, Rappler, of violating the ban on foreign ownership and sought its closure. Rappler denied the allegation and continues to operate.”

ABS-CBN has been fearless in its news reporting in fulfillment of its role as “watchdog” of the government, holding elected officials accountable even during the Marcos dictatorship. The network was shut down and its broadcast headquarter was claimed by the Philippine government from the Lopez Family when Marcos declared martial law in 1972.

The Lopez family was able to reclaim ownership and operation of the broadcasting network after Marcos was deposed by People Power in 1986.

In response to the order of the NTC, the network issued a statement saying:
“Millions of Filipinos will lose their source of news and entertainment when ABS-CBN is ordered to go off-air on TV and radio tonight (5 May 2020) when people need crucial and timely information as the nation deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is in compliance with the cease and desist order issued by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) today that prohibits ABS-CBN from continuing its broadcast operations effective immediately.

Despite Senate Resolution No. 40, the House of Representatives’ committee on legislative franchises’ letter, the guidance of the Department of Justice, and the sworn statement of NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba, the NTC did not grant ABS-CBN a provisional authority to operate while its franchise renewal remains pending in Congress.

In an interview with DZMM last week, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano even gave an assurance that there is no move to shut down the network.

ABS-CBN has been providing comprehensive news coverage on the public health crisis and working with local governments and the private sector in providing food and basic goods for those in need through its ‘Pantawid ng Pag-ibig’ campaign. To date, it has delivered over P300 million worth of goods for the benefit of over 600,000 families affected by the enhanced community quarantine.

We trust that the government will decide on our franchise with the best interest of the Filipino people in mind, recognizing ABS-CBN’s role and efforts in providing the latest news and information during these challenging times.

ABS-CBN remains committed to being in the service of the Filipino and we will find ways to continue providing meaningful service to them.”

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Gel Santos Relos has been in news, talk, public service and educational broadcasting since 1989 with ABS-CBN and is now serving the Filipino audience using different platforms, including digital broadcasting, and print, and is working on a new public service program for the community. You may contact her through email at [email protected], or send her a message via Facebook at

Gel Santos Relos

Gel Santos Relos is the anchor of TFC’s “Balitang America.” Views and opinions expressed by the author in this column are solely those of the author and not of Asian Journal and ABS-CBN-TFC. For comments, go to and

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