On February 24, 2020, the Senate Committee on Public Services held the first hearing to look into the issues surrounding the franchise of media giant ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation prior to its expiration on May 05, 2020. Relevant government agencies present at the hearing cleared the network over alleged violations on taxes, pay-per-view service, labor standards, and the issuance of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs).
A day after the official expiration of ABS-CBN’s franchise, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) filed a Cease and Desist order versus the network. In compliance with the order, the network went off-air at 8:00 PM.
The results of both the convenience survey and digital sentiments showed significant support towards ABS-CBN.
With 5,576 respondents, the convenience survey revealed that 54% are unhappy about the ABS-CBN network’s shutdown, while at least one (1) of the respondents are happy about it. Due to the NTC’s substantial involvement with this issue, 4 of 10 respondents are unhappy about the agency’s actions and at least a third is unsure about it.
Overall, vast majority of the respondents or 80% of them support ABS-CBN and believe that the network should continue to operate. The survey results are consistent across all demographic profiles of the respondents such as socioeconomic status, geographical location, age, and gender.
Due to several events that coincided with ABS-CBN’s closure, more particularly the COVID-19 pandemic and the enforcement of community quarantine, the digital sentiments data revealed a more diverse result which included public’s perception towards the NTC, Senate, and Congress.
With a total of 324,000 Facebook engagements that were gathered on the topic of Cease and Desist order filed by the National Telecommunications Commission against the network, 39% support the NTC while 47% support ABS-CBN, pointing out as well to other more critical matter that is the COVID-19 pandemic that the government must focus on. Likewise, vast majority of netizens showed their support towards the network when they filed a TRO vs NTC’s order with 73% of more than 34,200 engagements.
On May 19, 2020, a simultaneous deliberation at the Senate and Congress were held to discuss the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise. With a total of over 11,600 engagements gathered on the same day between 6:00 PM and 7:00 PM, 44% criticize the Congress—a substantial increase from 31% despite only an hour difference in digital collection period. In contrast, support towards ABS-CBN decreased from 24% to 15% within the same period.
On the other hand, with a total of over 58,200 engagements between May 19 and May 27, ABS-CBN received a steady support from online netizens with 31-32%. Criticisms towards the network also did not fluctuate as much with 26-28%. The Senate, however, obtained much of the criticisms during the initial digital collection with 37% but eventually dropped after a week and was replaced with sentiments calling for a fair deliberation on ABS-CBN’s franchise.
The shutdown, according to the NTC, was due to the news network’s alleged legal violations—all while other networks have been allowed to retain operation despite expiration of their own franchises. The public, opposition figures, and even administration allies expressed anger and disappointment towards these events. Many implicated President Duterte due to his statements in the past years about threatening to shut down the media giant. Although Palace recently insisted that the President is “completely neutral” on the pending status of ABS-CBN’s franchise. Another prominent personality at the forefront of this issue is Solicitor General Jose Calida who filed a quo-warranto against the network earlier this year. “We want to put an end to what we discovered to be highly abusive practices of ABS-CBN benefitting a greedy few at the expense of millions of its loyal subscribers. These practices have gone unnoticed or were disregarded for years,” Calida said in an interview.
President Duterte came into power with a strong populist narrative on his back—from promises to end labor contractualization and illegal drugs to putting a stop to elite rule in the country. His incessant intimidation against the so-called “oligarchs” had solidified the support that he needed from a nation that has been ran by a few families in business and politics for decades.
However, taking on ABS-CBN Corporation has nothing to do with confronting a big company on alleged legal violations but everything to do with petty, personal grievances and brazen use of political power.
Since 2017, Duterte has repeatedly claimed that ABS-CBN deceived him of the money he paid for his political ads in 2016 that was not aired—to which the network’s President Karlo Katigbak already debunked during the February 24 Senate hearing. Presidential aide and spokesperson-turned Senator Bong Go also mentioned during the same hearing how the President’s feelings were hurt due to an ad placed by then Senator Antonio Trillanes IV—who was running for VP in the 2016 elections—featuring young children reacting to Duterte’s recorded kill threats and cursing. “Nasaktan ang presidente, nababoy ang president. Hindi vindictive ang pangulo but someone clearly went overboard with the airing of this black propaganda,” said Go. The same political ad was aired in GMA7 and yet no complain was heard from the President’s camp.
The #YesToABSCBNShutdown quickly spread across all social media gaining millions of engagements. Posts and comments surfaced filled with anger towards the network and joy for its apparent closing. Digital disinformation and the presence of online “trolls” are not new phenomena, but this issue has further highlighted this plague and showed how massive of an orchestrated operation this is.
For the critics, however, no one has been more impacted by the closing of ABS-CBN than its 11,000+ employees and many others who are relying on the network’s daily operations. At a time where the country is facing serious economic uncertainties, petty politics has endangered the livelihoods of many Filipinos.
Loss of a vital source of news and information in this time of pandemic is another issue that irked many. Being the biggest mass communication and broadcasting firm in the country, the network’s shut down also meant depriving those in far areas that only ABS-CBN can reach their only source of information and entertainment.
While administration allies have continued to emphasize that the ABS-CBN franchise issue is a legal one, we cannot ignore its implications on press freedom. In fact, the issue is not an isolated one. Rappler and Philippine Daily Inquirer, as well as journalists, have also faced similar intimidations from Duterte due to their alleged bias reporting, unfair coverage, and commentaries critical of the administration. One thing is for sure, though: this sends a chilling message that if the government can shut down a big company such as the ABS-CBN, then so can smaller news media groups and ordinary individuals expressing their criticisms and disappointments towards those in the position of power.
With a nation waiting for a concrete plan from its leaders to address the pandemic, this administration has decided instead to turn its attention to shutting down a media network. The pandemic is far from over and the least we need right now are people settling their personal vendetta instead of trying to get us out of this crisis.