MANILA — Through earthquakes and typhoons, floods and political turmoil, Fe Repalde knew she could count on one constant: Her tiny, flickering television was always tuned to ABS-CBN, one of the most influential networks in the Philippines.
But May 5, amid the coronavirus lockdown that has kept slum dwellers bound to their shacks, Repalde’s television went dark as President Rodrigo Duterte effectively shut down the broadcasting giant.
Gone were basketball highlights and juicy soap operas. Most of all, the newscasters and reporters of the TV Patrol news program had been silenced, just when a pandemic has made information an essential commodity.
“Now, we don’t know what’s happening,” Repalde said, as a gaggle of ducks deposited droppings on the floor of her dilapidated shack, which she shares with her husband and four children.
“We can’t turn to TV news to tell us what to do,” she added.
Duterte’s government has ascribed the closure of ABS-CBN to anomalies in licensing renewals. But his critics say the move was yet more evidence of an increasingly domineering government using a crisis to crack down on dissent.
Human Rights Watch said the closure “reeks of a political vendetta.”
Morgan Ortagus, the spokeswoman for the State Department, said Washington was “concerned by the situation regarding ABS-CBN.”
“An independent media also helps keep our society safe and healthy, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic we currently face,” she said.
For decades, the Philippines has enjoyed one of the most freewheeling media environments in Asia, with newspapers and television networks trading in both breathless gossip and investigative scoops.
But the country’s journalists have also been singled out for their outspokenness, and the Philippines ranks as one of the world’s most dangerous places for reporters, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
While corrupt local leaders were blamed for ordering hits on radio journalists, Duterte has led a national campaign against those who dare to challenge him. He has called reporters “vultures” and “sons of bitches.”
Last year, he went after Rappler, a news site that has covered Duterte’s war on drugs, with its bloody record of extrajudicial killings. The editor of Rappler, Maria Ressa, a respected veteran journalist, has various legal cases pending against her that could lead to years in jail.
ABS-CBN is the first television network to be silenced by Duterte, and its influence was felt most keenly in the crowded slum-like villages like Ligas, where Repalde, 43, lives.
Her house, which is squeezed between a new highway and a shopping mall, lacks its own electricity supply. To run the most important appliances in her home — a small electric fan and the tiny television set — Repalde depends on a car battery, which she pays to recharge every two days at a nearby shop.
With the coronavirus lockdown, Repalde’s two adult children lost their jobs as a sales clerk and waiter. They had passed their time watching ABS-CBN.
“I voted for Duterte in the last elections,” Repalde said. “ABS-CBN was just reporting and doing its job. They should not have shut it down.”
The television network’s 25-year franchise expired earlier this month, and its representatives say it had filed all the necessary paperwork for a renewal. But the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Duterte’s allies, sat on the issue for three years. On May 5, the National Telecommunications Commission ordered the network off the air.
In December, Duterte warned the Lopez family, the network’s billionaire owners, to sell the business because its franchise would not be renewed.
“I will see to it that you are out,” Duterte said.
The blackout is the first time that ABS-CBN has gone off the air since 1986, when a popular revolt toppled the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Eugenio Lopez Jr., ABS-CBN’s former chairman, was jailed by Marcos, but he eventually escaped and fled to the United States, where he galvanized other exiled activists to campaign for a return to democracy in the Philippines.
SELDA, a group of activists who were tortured during Marcos’s martial law era, said Duterte, a self-confessed admirer of the dictator, was following the same playbook.
Closing down ABS-CBN was “no different than what happened during martial law,” the group said in a statement. “This abominable act of the current Duterte administration further exposes the true character of the regime.”
On Wednesday, the country’s House of Representatives passed a bill seeking to grant the network a provisional license. The legislation would still need approval by the Senate, where Sen. Risa Hontiveros said she wanted to send the message that “thousands will die in this virus” if ABS-CBN is muzzled.
Regina Reyes, the head of news at ABS-CBN, has migrated TV Patrol, the flagship news program, to digital platforms. One day last week, the show received more than 8.7 million views on Facebook and YouTube. Its competitor, GMA Network, managed only a fraction of that viewership for its news program.
More than 90% of Filipinos still get their news from television, Reyes said.
“The public are the real losers here,” she said.
Backstage last week, TV Patrol’s longtime news anchor, Noli de Castro, the country’s former vice president, pored over several newspapers with articles about the ABS-CBN shutdown. He was relaxed, but his other co-hosts appeared nervous.
“We are the day’s story,” he said.
The news that day focused heavily on the government’s coronavirus measures, although a large chunk of the program was devoted to stories about the shutdown of the station.
news.abs-cbn.com is the official news website of ABS-CBN Corp.