OPINION: Silence is not an option on ABS-CBN shutdown

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at May 06 2020 03:42 PM

The last time the curtains went down on ABS-CBN was when the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972.

One of the tyrant’s first moves in imposing one-man rule was to close down news outfits on print, radio, and television.

Journalists were jailed, tortured, or killed. ABS-CBN president Geny Lopez spent five years in detention without trial. Marcos crony Roberto Benedicto stepped in and took over the company assets.

In the print media, other cronies of the dictator would assume ownership of newspapers, presiding over a tame press until the advent of the mosquito press -- small, independent (sometimes, underground) publications,

Journalists like Joe Burgos and others risked repeated arrests and raids, and the confiscation of print runs, to shatter the silence, to shine a light on the many areas of corruption and abuse – and growing people’s resistance.

The growth of the mosquito press kept pace with the expanding anti-dictatorship movement in the national capital and the provinces, drawing in young journalists. Even in the crony media, journalists started pushing at the censors’ gates, playing a cat-and-mouse game with Marcos' minions in the Armed Forces.

The broadcast facilities that fell into Benedicto’s hands during the Marcos years would later play a major role in the EDSA People Power Revolt of 1986 that ousted the dictator.

After the late June Keithley announced on Radyo Bandido that Marcos had left his presidential palace on the banks of the Pasig River, he appeared on Benedicto’s station, Channel 4, to declare he was not stepping down.

But shortly after, a military rebel contingent captured the station, sending it briefly off the air. When it went live again, Filipinos heard the words, “to serve the people.”

At midnight of the following day, the dictator fled Malacanang as angry citizens massed around its gates.

Veterans, young turks

Thirty-four years after, the country’s largest broadcast network has once more gone on the blink, following a cease and desist order issued by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC). 

The generation of young journalists who saw the dictator fall is now at the helm of ABS-CBN’s Integrated News department. Some have retired.

Angelo Castro, the deep-voiced face and voice of the English newscast, The World Tonight, who manned the People Power rebel station with Keithley, his wife, left in 2012 for the afterlife.

Ging Reyes, the executive producer and head writer of “The World Tonight,” now heads the network’s Integrated News Department.

Since her 2010 return from the United States, where she headed the network’s North America bureau, Reyes has urged colleagues to fuse heart and mind in telling the story of the Filipino.

Under her leadership, younger journalists have stepped into the spotlight, winning awards and accolades with a combination of gritty news-gathering, incisive analysis, and lyrical story-telling.

Jeff Canoy won the prestigious Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature contest for his 2017 “Buhay Pa Kami (We Are Still Alive): Dispatches from Marawi,” a long-form piece on the brutal five-month-long siege of the Southern Philippines Islamic City, written for ABS-CBN News Digital.

His Marawi documentary with fellow journalist Chiara Zambrano also bagged a Gold World Medal at the New York Festivals and the country’s first Gold Dolphin for Best Documentary for Current Affairs, Human Concerns, and Social Issues Category at the 9th Cannes Corporate Media and TV Awards in France. 

Former print journalist Christian Esguerra is an unflappable, calm but sharp interviewer and anchor of the ANC “Early Edition” and has since branched out to podcast with “Matters of Fact”.

Canoy was named the 2018 Marshall McLuhan fellow by the Embassy of Canada and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, following in the footsteps of Lynda Jumilla, who now heads digital media. Esguerra also bagged the 2019 award of distinction from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)

Most ABS-CBN journalists are savvy in multi-media news production, allowing them to break first on digital platforms while processing reports for the free legacy flagship programs.

ABS-CBN News' special digital report on the Duterte’s war on drugs, written and photographed by multi-media head, Fernando Sepe Jr., won the award for Excellence in Feature Writing at the Society of Publishers in Asia's (SOPA) 2018 Awards for Editorial Excellence. 

Healing the wounds from the drug war” stands among the examples of how Filipino journalists have pushed beyond numbers and statistics to show the real costs on lives of Duterte’s draconian ways.

Government apologists like to hurl the jeer, “dilawan” against ABS-CBN.

But the truth is, like any other credible news organization, the network has earned the ire of a series of Philippine presidents. Duterte’s predecessor, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, once lambasted the network in front of its executives, anchors, and workers.

But only the Duterte government has worked openly to kill the station.

Free flow of information

The NTC had initially promised the House of Representatives and the Senate a provisional franchise for the network while Congress consolidates bills seeking the renewal of its franchise.

But on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, on the eve of the existing franchise’s end, Solicitor-General Jose Calida, known as President Rodrigo Duterte’s hatchet man, threatened to file charges against NTC officials if they made good their pledge.

The NTC caved in.

ABS-CBN journalists assigned to cover all branches of government reported events that culminated with station’s evening sign-off.

They continue working today. ABS-CBN’s digital platforms and its ANC cable news channel are not affected by the closure order. DzMMTeleradyo’s continues on Channel 26 of SkyCable and will stream on the network’s social media platforms.

But the world is not just digital.

Cutting off legacy media affects millions who cannot afford the costs of digital services.

Farmers, workers, poor people trapped in their homes as COVID19 continues to rampage across the country, still depend on radio and free television channels to get crucial information needed to protect their families’ health and rights.

Two million Bayan Patrollers, citizen journalists trained in media literacy and reporting, know that in many provinces, corrupt and negligent officials are best moved to action and reforms when news hits free TV and radio.

“Living in an area where cable networks hardly operate, majority of our towns in Lanao del Sur especially in far-flung areas tuned in to ABS-CBN because it’s the only channel their makeshift TV antennas could reach. They, too, have rights to accurate information,” Bangsamoro Parliament member Zia Alonto Adiong, the government spokesman during the Marawi crisis, pointed out on Twitter.

Whatever finger-pointing antics the day holds, one thing is clear: The closure of ABS-CBN leaves a big scar on the landscape where critical, vetted information should flow free, especially in an era of disinformation.

The network’s sign-off should also be seen in the context of incessant attacks on press freedom in this country, under a President who has insulted, abused, cut off journalists since even before he assumed office.

Rappler’s editors continue to battle assorted criminal cases that could affect their operations. Its reporters and correspondents are banned from covering the President. Alternative news outfits are tagged as terrorists; at least two senior reporters have been arrested and deliberate hacking attempts have tried to bring down their news platforms.

Journalists also continue to die in the Philippines. As ABS-CBN signed off, five men gunned down Dumaguete-based broadcaster and dyMD Energy 93.7 FM anchorman Rex Cornelio. He was the third journalist and broadcaster murdered in Dumaguete in as many years, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

“If Cornelio's killing is proven to be work-related, he would be the 16th journalist slain under President Rodrigo Duterte and the 188th since 1986,” said the NUJP.

The government’s general stance on dissent has grown increasingly draconian, with national officials dragging in militant organizations, big non-profit and church groups, and political parties, in a never-ending round of conspiracies lumping together hot-button issues like destabilization and terrorism.

Disinformation can fool people sometimes. But it can’t fool all the people all the time, to paraphrase music legend Bob Marley.

Between the time TV Patrol went on air till midnight on the day it temporarily went dark, more than a million tweets demanded an end to the shutdown of ABS-CBN.

ABS-CBN’s chief executive officer Carlo Katigbak vows the network will be back, nor will it allow the setback to stop delivery of important news and entertainment to millions of Filipinos.

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TV Patrol anchor Noli de Castro ended the program fighting words: “We will not be silenced despite this attack on our democracy and press freedom. In the face of this challenge facing our company and livelihood, we will not turn our backs on you.”

The Filipino people have thrown off the yoke of tyranny before. It takes collective action, with media and the public working together in defense of democracy. This nation knows silence is not an option. That way lies disaster, an open highway to abuse, corruption and massive trampling of our rights.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.