MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – As Filipinos watched ABS-CBN go off-air on Tuesday, May 5, news groups worldwide reported on the media giant’s closure amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) ordered ABS-CBN to halt television and radio broadcasting operations because their congressional franchise expired on May 4.
Congress was not able to act on the renewal of the franchise, which was granted by Republic Act No. 7966 in March 1995. However, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said on May 4 that the network can continue to operate pending deliberations on its franchise renewal. (TIMELINE: Duterte against ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal)
On February 26, the House committee on legislative franchises urged the NTC to grant provisional authority to ABS-CBN Corporation and its subsidiaries so they could continue to operate pending its franchise renewal.
In their reports, newsrooms abroad highlighted that ABS-CBN is the biggest broadcaster in the Philippines:
- “Leading TV network goes off air under Philippine gov’t order” – Associated Press
- “Philippines largest TV network ABS-CBN ordered shut” – Al Jazeera
- “Philippines Orders Closure of ABS-CBN Country’s Largest Broadcaster” – Variety
- “Leading Philippine broadcaster ABS-CBN ordered to close” – Financial Times
Others emphasized that the shutdown was ordered amid the Luzon-wide lockdown or extended community quarantine (ECQ) that was implemented in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic:
- “Philippines orders its largest broadcaster off the air as nation fights virus” – The Washington Post
- “Philippines’ main channel forced off-air amid coronavirus lockdown” – The Guardian
Others pointed out that President Rodrigo Duterte was unhappy with the network. These were the titles of the corresponding news organizations:
- “Leading Philippine Broadcaster, Target of Duterte’s Ire, Forced Off the Air” – New York Times
- “Philippines Orders Leading TV Network to Shut Down as Watchdogs Accuse President of Muzzling Independent Media” – Time
- “Philippines’ biggest TV network silenced after years feuding with Duterte” – CBS News
- “Philippine telecoms body orders TV broadcaster that irked Duterte to shut” – Reuters
- “Philippine TV network that angered Duterte ordered shut” – Nikkei Asian Review
- “Philippines’ top broadcaster ABS-CBN that irked Duterte ordered off the air” – The Straits Times
President Rodrigo Duterte himself had repeatedly said that the network’s franchise would not be renewed. He had previously accused ABS-CBN of “swindling” him when it failed to air his political ads during the presidential elections in 2016.
At a Senate hearing on February 24, ABS-CBN CEO Carlo Katigbak apologized to the President and explained that they aired all of the national ads that he paid for. ABS-CBN was not able to air all of his local ads, because local ads have a shorter airtime allocation. Katigbak said that they had already refunded P4 million, but the remaining P2.6 million was delayed.
Two days later, Duterte said he accepted the media giant’s apology, but insisted that the matter of their franchise renewal was out of his hands.
On Thursday, May 7, Malacañang condemned foreign media reports that associated Duterte with the shut down, saying that the NTC’s decision was “independent and impartial” and that the allegation was an attempt to put the President in a bad light.
The renewal of ABS-CBN’s legislative franchise is within the authority of Congress, they said, and it is within the purview of the Constitution for the NTC to issue a cease and desist order upon the expiration of the franchise. To intervene would be unconstitutional.
“It is, therefore, totally unfair and objectionable for some parties and some international media to insist that what happened to the network is due to ‘having incurred the ire’ of the President,” they said. “This assertion is remarkably erroneous, lacks objectivity, and scant in factual basis. Simply, a false narrative.”
They said that ABS-CBN’s shut down is not a press freedom issue.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, however, said on May 6 that the President “may modify, amend, recall, revoke any order or any decision that might have been rendered by his subordinates in the executive department.”
The NTC is a quasi-judicial body under the Department of Information and Communications Technology, which, in turn, is under the executive.
Gueverra had also earlier said that ABS-CBN can continue to operate while their franchise renewal was pending in Congress after the NTC grants it a provisional authority.