By Sara Gomez Armas
Manila, May 13 (efe-epa).- When the ABC-CBN news team, the biggest media group in the Philippines, aired its last bulletin on 5 May after being ordered into closure by President Rodrigo Duterte, frustration and incredulity hung in the air.
“We weren’t expecting that to happen that day, a few hours before the end of the office hours. So we aired our last broadcast for TV that day. Some cried, of course, it (the future) is full of uncertainties, we were trying to hold back our tears,” Jacke Manabat, a journalist for TV Patrol – the most-watched Philippine news show since 1987 – told Efe.
The National Telecommunications Commission ordered the immediate suspension of the group’s broadcasts a day after its 25-year license expired on 4 May.
The move shut down 42 TV channels – including the Philippines’ most-watched Channel 2 – as well as 10 digital networks and 23 radio stations.
Although officials have denied the president had in blocking the renewal of the broadcaster’s license, Duterte has repeatedly threatened to shut down the broadcaster.
A week later, journalists of ABS-CBN – the first TV broadcaster in Southeast Asia established in 1953 – continue to work as usual and have kept their most popular news show TV Patrol going through Facebook Live, with more than 8 million views, while cable channel ANC also continues to function.
However, without the advertising revenue for its TV programs – TV Patrol attracted around 17 million viewers on Channel 2 – the future of around 11,000 workers of the group is uncertain.
“The saddest part of that day was when I received a text from my mom asking what we would do. I support my whole family with my salary here,” said Manabat, 33, who began her media career with the same group 14 years ago.
With half an hour to go before TV Patrol, Manabat finishes the script of her piece on the repatriation of Filipinos due to the Covid-19 pandemic, while producers iron out details on set before going live.
Lighting and the teleprompter are turned on, the presenter’s make-up is touched up and the familiar tension mounts.
Two hours later the lights are switched off and people onset erupt in applause. Colleagues thank and congratulate each other, just as they used before closed down.
The thirst for information continues unabated and the engine that keeps TV Patrol alive continues to chug along.
Manabat never thought that a democratic government could shut down the biggest media group in the country, but she agrees with rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that Duterte is behind the move.
“Some parts of the rural areas are nor reached by some other networks here, but we (ABS-CBN) are there. If you shut it down, you’ll have control of the press. This (…) sends a bad signal to other networks as well,” she said.
The president’s anger towards ABS-CBN dates back the 2016 presidential race when the group did not air a Duterte campaign video as it had not been approved by the electoral commission.
Getting a broadcasting license renewed hinges on a Congress dominated by Duterte’s political allies. Hearings have been repeatedly delayed since 2016.
The offensive against ABS-CBN has had a two-pronged approach with Solicitor General Jose Calida – an old friend of the president – filing a petition with the Supreme Court in February to annul the broadcaster’s license for allegedly violating a foreign ownership restriction, something the group denies.
Despite the onslaught, many have called for the renewal of ABS-CBN-s license including the National Telecommunications Commission which pledged to grant the broadcaster a temporary license until Congress debated the matter.
So the order to close the network down last week came as a shock and a blow.