By Michelle Baltazar
Illustration: Harold Joey Belen
SYDNEY – When I read the news that the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) served a cease-and-desist order against Philippine media monolith ABS-CBN, I wasn’t even shocked. As a journalist, you instinctively look at a news story not for what it said but what might have happened in the lead-up to writing that story.
First, the villain is not always the villain. I suspect the NTC is a walk-in character in what is really a story that happened many years ago. Back in 2016 when a presidential candidate was refused by a television network to run his election ads. In writer-speak, this was the inciting incident.
Let’s not think for a moment that ABS-CBN is not a commercial entreprise. It redefined how a media outfit makes money. Not just some money, but serious money. Unlike many Australian media behemoths that have shrunk in size and power over time, ABS-CBN just got bigger and better since it began. It had the Midas touch. It could make or break careers. Before the NTC pulled the plug on its franchise license, it was untouchable.
Until it touched a nerve. Not just any nerve but that of an individual who was even more driven than all of the TV network’s stars combined. If ABS-CBN didn’t air the ads, it’s bad business. That’s not the ABS-CBN way. And because it did happen, only a fly on the wall on the day that decision was made could tell us the truth.
The easy suspicion of course is that the then candidate-now-president, Rodrigo Duterte, wasn’t the network’s chosen one. He wasn’t their manok (presidential bet). And when profit is forsaken, it could only be forsaken for one thing: power.
Unfortunately, the network messed with the wrong guy. They made a mistake that would bite them later big time.
The president sowed the seeds of the payback a few years ago. He didn’t just hint at it, he warned the media he wouldn’t renew the franchise license. If his clues about the imminent shutdown were breadcrumbs, he was hurling loaves.
Arrogant mistake number two: ABS-CBN must have assumed his threats were hot air. Nobody, not even a head of state, would dream of forcing them off-air.
I didn’t think it was possible. Duterte may be the pinuno ng bayan (leader of the nation) but Coco Martin is the anak ng bayan (child of the nation). No way!
But while ABS-CBN stars were busy donating protective masks, NTC got busy donning protective masks ahead of the ensuing public outrage.
Perhaps this is the turning point for ABS-CBN. The people of the Philippines can take all forms of hardship in life. But if there is one thing they won’t put up with, it’s life without their primetime bida (hero) and birit (big belter) idols.
Take away Regine Velasquez, Angel Locsin and Sarah ‘Tala Phenomenon’ Geronimo from the Philippines and you have no country left. Great music and entertainment are the springboards of the Filipino identity. They nurture us, they define us and they elevate us onto the global stage.
Perhaps what’s happening behind-the-scenes is a big song-and-dance between two big egos: that of a powerful president and a powerful press.
The supporting cast members – just like any good telenovela – are the warring factions of the media regulators, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Kontrabidas and minions abound.
What’s the next kabanata (chapter)? There’s a cynical view that this is just a costly and elaborate but well-orchestrated spectacle.
The president gets to say ‘I told you so’, the broadcaster lives another day and the public goes back to their regular programming.
The problem with deals done behind closed doors is that we just don’t know what really happened in the lead-up to and after the NTC fiasco.
Chay Hofilena, the head of Rappler’s investigative desk, said in her latest column that she was angry about the forced shutdown of ABS-CBN. “Only a government as brazen, calculating, and opportunistic as the current one would do this at the height of a pandemic crisis,” she said.
And it’s true. How could you switch off ABS-CBN when people are getting sick, starving and out of jobs? Besides Popoy and Basha, the TV network has the scale to deliver life-saving COVID-19 news to far-flung provinces and raise millions of dollars for food and medical aid under the government-imposed quarantine.
I go back to that word: arrogance.
Pride comes before the fall. All the parties involved in this debacle should take heed from this slice of wisdom.
But is this the end or is there a bigger game in play?
Perhaps I’ve got it wrong. Maybe the president had genuinely moved on and accepted ABS-CBN’s public apology.
But perhaps this is not about sore wounds from the past but about safeguarding the future.
Are we being primed for a new high-stakes drama that takes us from the fictional plot of FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano (from the province) to the real-life plot of the Balik Probinsya (back to the province) government project?
Either way, no one is above the free press. We cannot allow the obstruction of the egos lead to the obstruction of justice. Lives and livelihoods become collateral damage. Everything about this smells fishy.
As a journalist, once you piece together what might have happened in the lead-up to a news story, you discover that what you read was just the tip of the iceberg.
You then speculate what happens next based on the few dots you connected.
So, who wins? Is it the press, the public or the politician?
Only time will tell.
One thing’s for sure: there is a sequel.
Michelle Baltazar is the publisher of the Australian Filipina and the editor-in-chief of national finance magazine, Money. She was a former news contributor for Balitang Australia (now defunct) by ABS-CBN.
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