Just like any tragedy, it has always been common practice for people to ask where you were and how you felt when it happened. On the evening of May 5, 2020, people would ask the same thing as the final Lupang Hinirang was played, and the voice of the great Peter Musngi told us: “This is ABS-CBN Corporation Channel 2, now signing off” and the screen turned black.
Many said they shed tears, others agitated and dismayed, while a good number did not believe it was actually happening.
Indeed, that black screen symbolizes the darkness we now are all in, and the bleakness of the freedoms we face.
But for those who were not around to witness the atrocities in the onset of Martial Law in 1972, especially millennials and zoomers, this actually brings a sense of déjà vu.
[related: In Focus: Meet 'The Voice' Of ABS-CBN—Peter Musñgi]
It was the morning of September 23, 1972, when employees thought they would start a normal day in the station, although the prevailing national situation was anything but ordinary. President Ferdinand Marcos had declared Martial Law hours earlier, and the hard and solid footsteps of soldiers were heard in the premises of the ABS-CBN Broadcast Center on Bohol Avenue (now Sgt. Esguerra Avenue). They stormed the station to forcibly shut it down. Channels 2 and 4, dzXL and dzAQ Radyo Patrol were all shuttered and taken off the air. Raids were also ongoing in ABS-CBN regional stations around the country to silence them. All the employees were brought outside the compound, as soldiers, led by Col. Rolando Abadilla, took over the station, leaving the premises empty except for gun-toting patrols.
When Filipinos woke up that morning to turn on their TVs and radios, they only saw and heard static. ABS-CBN was no more.
Forty-eight years after, it all seemed a throwback but utterly real. No soldiers though, or roving military guards, but only an order that carried the same force, wherein the network had no other choice but to comply.
No workers herded outside, no empty hallways but a handful of employees in their workplaces braving the COVID-19 pandemic left weeping.
Silencing media has always been orgasmic for erring officials, and ABS-CBN, with its clout, programming skills, and market leadership, surely can make or break their political careers, since it only speaks the truth. Thus, shuttering the station was a cause for celebration.
In 1972, it was indeed a victory for the dictatorship, as for some time, ABS-CBN was laid to waste, with its buildings and equipment unused and abandoned. No one could ever talk freely in the airwaves, making the government virtually unassailable.
Employees, talents, and journalists were seen milling around the complex for a time, hoping against hope that the station would still open. Yet months have passed, and they just gave up. And that would go on until new owners, who were close business friends of President Marcos, instituted a forced company takeover and seized the broadcast facilities and turned it into dictatorship-friendly networks over the years, with Channel 2 becoming the Banahaw Broadcasting Corp, and Channel 4 as the government station. And, 14 years after, when People Power overthrew the dictatorship, the Lopez family reclaimed its prized network, specifically retaining the Channel 2 frequency, and opening the radio station dzMM. Channel 4 remained with the government as the “People’s Television” network.
[related: In Focus: Moments Before ABS-CBN Channel 2 Went Off Air As Captured By Jeff Canoy]
As the nation rejoiced with the installation of a new government, and the basic freedoms were all regained, especially the freedom of the press, more so with the crafting and passing of a new constitution in 1987 that provides the legislature the sole power to approve franchises, specifically for broadcasting networks, for a certain period. A law would thus be passed to grant the franchise for 25 years, which will be enacted with the President’s approval. This was to give Congress the authority to oversee the effectivity, lawfulness, and suitability of such networks to serve the Filipino, with the National Telecommunications Commission as the executory and governing body to implement such franchise.
It didn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind that this particular “power” of the legislature became the basis for yet another attempt to curtail such freedom we all struggled to achieve. When President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, he never held back his “grudges” against the network, saying repeatedly he won’t approve the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise. This led to Congress, composed mostly of his allies, dragging its feet in extending the franchise, which the network obtained in 1995 and was set to expire during his term, despite several pending bills seeking the renewal. Similarly, the Solicitor General filed a quo warranto case before the Supreme Court to void the current franchise.
While the case before the High Tribunal remained pending and the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country, all it took was to wait for the actual date the franchise would lapse to have ABS-CBN stop its free-to-air broadcast. And they succeeded last Tuesday, when the NTC issued a “Cease and Desist Order” directing “ABS-CBN to stop operating its various TV and radio broadcasting stations nationwide ‘absent a valid Congressional franchise as required by law.’” This came as ABS-CBN had its hands full in disseminating valuable information on COVID-19 and addressing the needs of frontliners and people directly affected by the Enhanced Community Quarantine, raising PHP 300 million for its “Pantawid ng Pag-ibig” campaign.
It also seemed it was blindsided, given that assurances were made that a provisional authority from Congress would be granted to ABS-CBN, as guaranteed by the NTC itself, since the Lower House had not acted upon the franchise renewal process for years, and that the nation was dealing with the pandemic. Yet, the NTC would make that shocking turnaround and suddenly ordered the network to cease and desist operations.
[related: In Focus: A Katigbaker's Guide To ABS-CBN President And CEO Carlo Katigbak]
Emotions ran high among Kapamilya top management, executives, journalists, workers, talents, and viewers, as the network had no choice but to go off-the-air only a few hours after the NTC order was issued.
But even though the screen turned black and our living rooms turned dark for the time being with ABS-CBN vowing to exhaust all legal measures to go back on-air, the network remained unwavering with its long-held commitment to serve the Filipino worldwide through its immense cable and global channels and wide-reaching, well-developed, massively followed digital platforms at its disposal.
As TV Patrol main anchor Noli de Castro said before ABS-CBN went off the air, “Hindi man na-renew ang aming prangkisa at pinatitigil ang aming broadcast, nanangako kami sa inyo, hindi kami mananahimik. (Even if our franchise wasn’t renewed and our broadcast was ordered to cease, we promise that we will never fall silent.)"
When the Marcos dictatorship brought down ABS-CBN in 1972, the network fell out from public consciousness completely, erasing its name, its voice and its entity in its entirety. But with the current regime’s maneuvers to again shut down the network, ABS-CBN’s influence has not only expanded dramatically to Internet and social media, with its reach to the masses rising exponentially, but also has been deeply etched in the hearts and minds of the common Filipino it has served through the years. And today, not even shuttering its gates, taking it off the air, or even crippling its organization could make ABS-CBN really fade into the dark and stay silent.
Mod Moms: Melai Cantiveros On Keeping The Fun And Love At Home During Crisis
Banner image courtesy of Philippine Daily Express via Wikimedia Commons