MANILA—ABS-CBN’s quest to return on the air with a new operating franchise has placed the Philippines’ largest broadcast network under the relentless scrutiny of congressmen.
A joint House committee on Monday spent 8 hours questioning how the Lopez family regained the company and its assets, with one congressman alleging that it didn’t go through the “proper processes,” after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
But the family didn’t have it easy under Corazon Aquino, who took over after the Edsa People Power Revolution.
“The government didn’t want to give it back,” the late Eugenio “Geny” Lopez Jr. recalled in “Kapitan,” a book on the company’s success story.
The late ABS-CBN chairman had “offered to lend” the broadcast center to the new democratic government for about 30 days, to also enable him to raise money to revive the shuttered network, which, at that time, needed P40 million to P50 million a year, according to the Lopez family’s historian Raul Rodrigo.
But the Cory Aquino administration “had gotten used to using” the facility for PTV-4 and it took time before the Lopezes regained the broadcast facility.
A team formed by then Press Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. “would not even concede that ABS-CBN actually owned the broadcast center,” Rodrigo wrote.
“Since so many Filipinos suffered during the Marcos regime, why should the Lopezes be compensated ahead of the others?” Conrado “Dodie” Limcaoco, PTV-4’s new general manager, was quoted as saying.
The same argument has been raised against ABS-CBN’s application for a new franchise 34 years later.
But Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate told his colleagues on Monday that it was “just right” for the Lopez family to regain the company and its assets.
“Para itong sitwasyon na ikaw na nga yung ninakawan, dapat ibalik sayo. Naaayon sa ating batas yan, natural man o moral na batas o sa ating konstitusyon,” he said.
This “robbery” took place in 1972 shortly after Marcos declared martial law and padlocked independent newsrooms, including ABS-CBN.
What immediately followed was confusion among employees at the sight of “fully armed troops patrolling the grounds,” and later, the optimism that the closure won’t be for long. In fact, the wait took 14 years.
A total of 1,200 employees lost their jobs as the company’s debt ballooned to P69 million while having no income by late 1972.
In the meantime, some 100 to 200 employees gathered every year for a Christmas reunion, which allowed them “to feed one another’s hope that the next year would be the one that would see them all together again back at the broadcast center,” Rodrigo wrote.
Marcos needed a "legal cover" instead of an "outright seizure" of ABS-CBN to protect his "intended image of a benevolent, law-abiding visionary, and patriot," Rodrigo wrote.
Two of the dictator's cronies competed for control of the network, with Roberto Benedicto beating Benjamin "Kokoy" Romualdez to it.
Nearly half a century later, ABS-CBN was shut down for the second time, following frequent attacks from President Rodrigo Duterte, who had vowed to take it off the air.
The National Telecommunications Commission issued a cease-and-desist order last May 5, a day after ABS-CBN's broadcast franchise was left to expire despite pending applications in the House of Representatives.
Public outrage over the closure, seen in the context of other government attacks on the press, prompted the House leadership to finally schedule committee hearings.
Last Monday, ABS-CBN lawyers explained the tedious process the Lopez family had to go through to reacquire the company and its facilities under Cory Aquino.
The family signed arbitration agreements with the government, a process eventually upheld by the Supreme Court.
In the book, Geny Lopez’s son, Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III, recalled how difficult it was to negotiate with the government to regain Channel 2 in 1986.
“I think we went through 2 weeks when we were sleeping only 2 or 3 hours a night because my father was driving us to accomplish this as quickly as possible,” the younger Lopez said.
In June that year, ABS-CBN got only “a small, rundown part” of its broadcast center with Limcaoco keeping “the core of the building and the plush executive offices PTV-4,” wrote Rodrigo.
“We were like squatters there,” recalled Jimmy Navarro, who was then in charge of ABS-CBN’s programming.
The network has come a long way since despite the current prospect of its free TV and radio channels remaining off the air for good.
In the 2006 "Kapitan" book, Gabby Lopez wrote: "I approach our situation today with determination and equanimity that is born out of knowing who we are and where we come from."
"Our current troubles, I am sure, are only a momentary blip in a much larger story of challenge and eventual triumph," he added.