Everything You Want to Know About the ABS-CBN Shutdown, Answered

Is Duterte behind the closure of the Philippines’ largest news network? Is this an attack on press freedom? What’s next?
May 6, 2020, 5:20am
abscbn, shutdown, philippines, press freedom, media
An employee looks at an announcement of ABS-CBN's shutdown on May 5, 2020. Photo by Maria TAN / AFP. 

At 7:52 PM on Tuesday, May 5, the Philippines’ largest media network went off the air after a long battle to renew its franchise to broadcast. ABS-CBN shut down just hours after the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued a cease and desist order against it. Its 11,000 employees are now threatened of losing their jobs, while the Philippines is battling one of the biggest attacks on press freedom since Rodrigo Duterte became president.

Millions watched as its flagship station signed off and TV screens went black. But while netizens captured the historic event and shared their opinions on the issue, the reason for the shutdown is still unclear to many.

Below, VICE answers the most asked questions about the ABS-CBN shutdown and outlines the most important facts, events, and figures in the issue.

Why did ABS-CBN shut down?

The Philippine government regulates the granting of broadcast frequencies in the country. Companies are required to acquire a franchise that is granted by Congress through legislation. ABS-CBN’s last franchise was approved for 25 years on March 30, 1995 and was due to expire this year. Without the government’s approval, ABS-CBN can’t air content through its 80 stations on free TV and AM and FM radio stations, which use the same frequency.

The company had tried to renew its franchise several times since 2014 and Congress had filed 11 bills seeking the renewal, with the latest filed in July 2019. But there were many obstacles in their bid to continue operating, chief among these was that Duterte himself was against the renewal.

What is the NTC?

The Philippines' National Telecommunications Commission or NTC controls all telecommunications services in the country. The NTC’s decisions can only be appealed through the Supreme Court.

What does Duterte have to do with the ABS-CBN shutdown?

In April 2017, the president said that he would block the franchise request, claiming that ABS-CBN was "swindling” him by not airing one of his paid campaign ads for the 2016 elections. This was the first of many times Duterte threatened the network’s shutdown, citing personal reasons. Like other media outlets, he also claimed that ABS-CBN spreads “fake news” about him. In December 2019, the President went so far as to say, “If you expect that (the franchise) will be renewed, I’m sorry. I will see to it that you’re out.”

It all came to a head earlier this year when the Office of the Solicitor General, through a quo warranto petition, questioned ABS-CBN’s franchise before the Supreme Court. However, it claimed that this move had nothing to do with Duterte’s call to shut down the network.

The NTC itself said it would allow ABS-CBN to continue operating even after May 4, because lawmakers were still tackling the renewal bills. Speaker of the House Alan Peter Cayetano even said in February that they can continue to operate until 2022.

Despite these assurances, however, on Tuesday, May 5, the NTC issued a cease and desist order against ABS-CBN, a day after its franchise expired, directing the company to immediately stop operations after pressure from the Solicitor General.

What is a cease and desist order?

A cease and desist letter orders individuals or businesses to stop alleged illegal activity and bans them from restarting it. In the case of ABS-CBN, this meant signing off from its multiple TV and radio stations.

What will happen to ABS-CBN’s other channels?

The cease and desist order does not include the company’s other businesses, which means ABS-CBN's news, entertainment, and sports websites, streaming platform iWant, and cable channels like news channel ANC and ABS-CBN Sports + Action can still operate.

Who owns ABS-CBN?

ABS-CBN was founded in the 1940s and is owned by the Lopez family, former sugarcane plantation owners and once the controlling shareholder of Manila’s electric power distributor, Meralco. The conglomerate now owns several media and telecommunications companies including TV and radio stations, a film production company, a music record label, and a cable service provider.

What happened during the ABS-CBN shutdown in 1972?

ABS-CBN has been shut down once before. Upon then-President Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law in 1972, the military took over ABS-CBN’s operations and suspended its broadcast, along with other local TV and radio stations. This media control would last until the dictator was overthrown by the People Power Revolution in 1986. Now, this event is drawing comparisons to ABS-CBN’s recent shutdown, especially because Duterte, who has close ties with the Marcos family, has been going after the government’s critics. In recent weeks, multiple people have also been arrested or summoned for criticising his management of the coronavirus pandemic. Taken together, there are legitimate concerns regarding attacks on press freedom, and dwindling democratic practices in the Philippines, as well as fears of another Martial Law declaration.

What’s next?

ABS-CBN has 10 days to respond to the NTC’s order and defend why their franchise should be renewed.

Several lawmakers have condemned the shutdown, including Senator Grace Poe who heads the committee in charge of deliberating the bills seeking the renewal. She said that they will immediately resolve the issue but quickly passed the responsibility to the House of Representatives, which must first pass their version of the bill before the Senate can tackle it.

In the meantime, ABS-CBN said in a statement that it will continue operations through other platforms.

“We trust that the government will decide on our franchise with the best interest of the Filipino people in mind, recognizing ABS-CBN’s role and efforts in providing the latest news and information during these challenging times,” the statement said. “ABS-CBN remains committed to being in the service of the Filipino and we will find ways to continue providing meaningful service to them.”

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This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.

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