● The ABS-CBN network’s closure could not have happened without pressure from deep within the government of President Rodrigo Duterte.
● Duterte may only be creating political theater, but there is also the possibility of a miscalculation that could generate real risks for his administration.
The country’s telecommunications regulator today ordered ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television and radio network, off the air. On paper, the reason given by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) is that the network’s 25-year license, in the form of a congressional franchise granted through the same process as a law, had lapsed in April and not been renewed. The network is publicly-listed but controlled by the Lopez family, which also has interests in real estate and power generation. ABS-CBN can also still broadcast online or over cable.
However, the congressional inaction on the license and the NTC’s decision to close the network is the result of pressure from the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. Ever since winning the presidency, Duterte had made known his anger at ABS-CBN, believing it to be biased against him and possibly even conspiring to weaken his government. He also accused it of pocketing the payments that his campaign made during the 2016 elections, without airing his ads. The network is also a popular target for Duterte's supporters and social media campaigners, which is why this closure plays well to his core base.
This is not the first time ABS-CBN has been shuttered by the government. In 1972, it was also ordered closed by the autocrat, former President Ferdinand Marcos, after he declared martial law. The Marcos government eventually nationalized ABS-CBN as well as another firm owned by the Lopez family, the country’s main electricity distributor Meralco. ABS-CBN and Meralco were returned to the family only in 1986, following the popular revolt that removed Marcos. To a certain extent, this narrative also fuels Duterte’s perceptions of the network as acting on behalf of the country’s political elites, because he considers the Lopezes close allies of former President Corazon Aquino.
This latest development will likely further polarize the elites who are opposed to Duterte and have been critical of many of his policies, from his controversial anti-drug war to his foreign policy pivot to China. But this is not the main risk for Duterte; after all, the elites that are against him are a minority and largely incohesive, lacking the strong leadership that could present itself as an alternative to the president.
Rather, the main risk for Duterte is that the majority of the population are likely unfamiliar with, and uninterested in, the legalities of the network’s closure — all they will see is that a familiar source of information and entertainment, whether on TV or the radio, has been shut down by government order. Given the current uncertainty about not only the virus but the outlook for the economy, it is these very same groups that are most likely to be politically vulnerable to seeing the government’s actions as arbitrary if the popular narrative turns that way. In 1986, it was also two years of economic pain that contributed to the growing popular resentment with the Marcos regime. While Duterte may not be under the same threat since his term ends in roughly two years, a substantial decline in his popularity could affect his ability to influence his succession.
Whether the administration appreciates this risk today, or is too ensconced in its belief in the president’s seeming Teflon popularity, is likely the key variable.
This creates two possible outcomes: the first is that Duterte recognizes that while he may gain bragging rights with his supporters, shutting down ABS-CBN for an extended period could generate real risks. He therefore asks, within the next few weeks, his Congressional allies to approve a new license or for the NTC to issue a temporary permit pending Congressional hearings. The administration would then sell this as a sign of the president’s political leadership and willingness to act above his personal preferences at a time of crisis.
The second possible outcome is that of a prolonged game of chicken between the network and the administration. This would happen if Duterte’s goal is to extract concessions from the Lopezes, whether in terms of how the network covers the administration or maybe in some other aspect of its business. Should the Lopez family deem the administration’s demands to be unacceptable, then it could hold out, at great economic cost, but with its political leverage increasing if Duterte’s popularity takes a hit as a result of the pandemic. Although the family has not publicly come out on the issue — the tone of the administration’s management in its message last night, asking the network’s viewers and the public “to make known and felt” what they feel regarding its closure could be a veiled threat that it knows that this is only the middle game.