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Going black

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

It did not fade-to-black; no filmic artifice needed. The network just went black.

The biggest communications network in the Philippines—Southeast Asia’s oldest television broadcaster—was right to go black, no ceremony. ABS-CBN is not defunct, in any case. Its online and cable assets are extensive and well-developed.


The network moves just a little bit faster into cyber broadcasting than it has been planning.

Going black serves another purpose than signaling a blow to ABS-CBN. It works to visualize how specific freedoms are being snuffed-out for Filipinos.


It bears observing that ABS-CBN the corporation is not exactly synonymous with the ABS-CBN that performs a major role in the institutionalization of Constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, of expression, of speech. Section 4 of the Bill of Rights protects journalists, media organizations, and communications platforms from forces that compromise or prevent their ability to be the Fourth Estate.


The Constitution certainly protects media from state repression—lest this is forgotten. Even the issues surrounding the ABS-CBN franchise renewal have to be discussed in the larger sense of this Constitutional bias for sustaining free and powerful media that can speak truth to power.

The question of whether or not ABS-CBN can speak truth to power consistently and admirably is trumped, at this time, the greater question of whether or not the Constitution has been debased by the government. The answer to the greater question is yes, even if the answer to the first question may be no.


So, no, ABS-CBN is not The New York Times and its practices deserve critical review. But, yes, its existence is guaranteed by the Constitution.


It is perfectly possible to loathe Ted Failon, Noli de Castro, and Anthony Taberna for diminishing journalism, and to also call out the closure of ABS-CBN as the horrendous anti-democratic move of an autocratic government.


There is no incompatibility between agreeing to check, say, the network’s labor practices, and agreeing to renew a franchise as a matter of course—in view of the spirit of the Bill of Rights.

The anti-Ang Probinsyano sort who accuses the network of dummifying the nation, should nevertheless recognize that the nation benefits overall from media that can mobilize popular sentiment to check abuse of power.


Moreover, critical views on media ownership in a democracy are not incongruous with critical views of this government’s will to dismantle the Constitution itself.


What matters to the Philippines is the assault on the Constitution, not the stuff that labor associations, journalism’s peer groups, educational institutions, and consumer advocates can address.


As for the matter of the network’s use of Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR’s) in its corporate financing structure, it needs only be said that the same charge has been leveled at Rappler. The pseudo nationalism wrapped in the excessive legalese in the “opinion” of Juan Ponce Enrile (yes, alive and still available to tyranny) about these PDR’s as sleight-of-hand that lets foreigners into media ownership, begs questions about China running roughshod over Philippine sovereignty under this dispensation.


A sense of proportion! The government’s disingenuous framing of the ABS-CBN franchise renewal— which the public has to cobble together from inconsistent and dubious statements by the NTC, the Presidential Spokesperson, the leadership of Congress, individual Congressmen—narrows the field of vision to legal entrapment.


The framing undermines a sense of proportion. The biggest network in the Philippines merits recognition as one dimension of the Filipino’s cultural proclivity to democratic institutions, no matter how imperfect democracy has been; indeed beyond the imperfections of the network.

It is shameful that the public sphere still gives ample room to two malefic nonagenarians to narrate the ABS-CBN issue in cultural terms. Ponce Enrile piles on excessive legal verbiage to argue a fishy point. Francisco Sionil Jose rambles about the behavior of the Lopezes, owner of the network, to play Left and Right in Cold War opportunism. Both assume entitlement to a moral high horse that they do not own.


The idea that legalese is the privileged language of truth in this country, and the concomitant idea that literary achievement excuses limp criticality, together produce a cultural environment prejudiced against a refined sense of proportion. Still, the Constitution also protects the right of these two overstaying humans to contribute mean-spiritedness instead of largeness of vision to the public sphere. To try to further tilt Philippine culture in the direction of the legal gotcha, and to call it nationalism.


ABS-CBN will outlast them. But the Philippines will need to cultivate a cultural bent for the big picture.

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