ABS-CBN Shutdowns: Then and Now
This piece is part of a series to mark the first anniversary of the shutdown of ABS-CBN’s broadcast on free TV and radio which happened May 5, 2020.
Boo Chanco was a cub reporter and newscast producer at ABS-CBN during the run-up to martial law, the Plaza Miranda bombing among his onsite coverages. He later returned to the network in the 1980s and for a time led the news division as vice president and news director.
When the ABS-CBN University was formed in 2014, Boo became dean of its Journalism Academy. The University was closed after ABS-CBN’s franchise bid was junked.
Also a former newspaper editor, he remains a print/online columnist.
In 1972, the soldiers fully armed with their M-16s, swooped down on ABS-CBN’s broadcast center and closed the station down around midnight that Friday. No one argues with the barrel of a gun pointed at you. We expected it was coming but we were still shocked when it did.
I went home past 10 pm that night after wrapping up my work for the day. I had no inkling that was the last time I would be at the ABS-CBN newsroom.
This time, 2020, the closure was a slow-motion drama. We knew for months it was going to happen but like the first time, we were still shocked when it did. No Metrocom soldiers closed down the broadcast center… just a piece of paper from the National Telecommunications Commission telling us to go off the air because our franchise expired.
Other than Jake Almeda Lopez, I can’t think of anyone else who experienced two lockdowns at the hands of a power-mad president in our lifetime.
The first time around was traumatic and scary because no one knew what martial law was all about. While they were closing down ABS-CBN, they also rounded up prominent media personalities and threw them at the Camp Crame stockade. We were not just worried about our jobs, we were worried about our lives.
This time, there was no formal curtailment of constitutional rights. We just found ourselves in the unfortunate position of being legally vulnerable to the whims of a vindictive provincial mayor pretending to be president of the country.
We were also the victims of a terribly corrupt political system where members of Congress are almost totally beholden to whoever is in Malacanang. There is no better time to have a free and independent media. But that’s not how Duterte saw it. It was time for vengeance.
In both instances, the international brotherhood of journalists came to our defense. It was more difficult in 1972 because the best alternative media we could muster was the xerox machine copying clippings of articles from the international press about the martial law regime of Marcos. That was how it was for the next 14 years.
This time around, ABS-CBN was not totally silenced, thanks to digital technology. Indeed, if this happened maybe 5 years from now, things would be even more different.
As it is now, the courageous reporters of ABS-CBN are still able to report the news for broadcast on digital media. They are still making waves at the West Philippine Sea and they are still exposing the multitudes dying miserably without medical help as Duterte and his minions continue to mismanage their pandemic response.
In this era of social media where people get their news from their own information silos, there are those who say traditional journalism is not as essential anymore. Nothing is further from the truth.
At a time when anyone is free to peddle their version of falsehood, we need the discipline and dedication of professional journalists more than ever to tell us what is true in today’s world. The work has expanded from print to broadcast to digital media but the work of a journalist remains the same: to tell the truth and call out the abuses and failures of leaders of society.
Then as now, to be a journalist is almost like entering the priesthood if one is to be dedicated to the task expected of someone who works with words to keep society protected from despots and incompetence.
It has been a year since ABS-CBN was forced to close down its on-air broadcast services. But the service continues in digital media, not just here but in all Filipino communities in the world. The mission has not ended, only the means of executing it changed somewhat.
It took 14 years for ABS-CBN to be resurrected the last time around. It won’t take that long this time. Times have changed and technology has and continues to change the way we live.
We should be back to where we were and even better sooner than we think. Let the Duterte shutdown serve as a good learning experience for the network’s dedicated journalists.
ABS-CBN as a Filipino institution will live on. But more important, the journalists it has nurtured will carry on its proud tradition that under whatever circumstances, the mission of the ABS-CBN journalist is to ensure that in the end, truth must prevail.