Regina Reyes says she had a “journalist’s premonition” that something bad would happen the day before Philippine authorities ordered her ABS-CBN news station to cease and desist operations on May 5.
That evening, ABS-CBN, the nation’s largest news organization, said goodbye to its viewing audience and signed off the air. “Up to now, that screen is black,” Reyes, ABS-CBN’s head of news, told CPJ in an interview.
ABS-CBN was ordered closed while its 25-year franchise renewal application is still pending in Congress. The popular broadcaster’s at least temporary closure came after President Rodrigo Duterte vowed on several occasions to knock the award-winning news organization off the air.
Duterte has taken frequent aim at the broadcaster’s coverage, including several hard-hitting reports on his government’s war on drugs campaign, which human rights group allege has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings. Duterte’s spokespeople have consistently claimed in press interviews that ABS-CBN’s closure is legal and not political.
Reyes says ABS-CBN has been able to maintain certain news programs, including via online streaming and on a digital channel not covered by the franchise, but that its free-to-air nationwide TV channel provides the revenue the organization needs to survive.
In a wide-ranging interview, Reyes elaborated on ABS-CBN’s situation and the wider press freedom situation in the Philippines. The interview has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Please elaborate on ABS-CBN’s situation since the closure.
We are still covering the news, our radio reporters are still covering the news, our TV reporters are still out there. So we are trying to maintain our operations for as long as we can, but I do not know if it will be sustainable.
Our CEO announced [on May 5] that we would try to keep jobs for the next three months, however he also said that if we cannot go back on air then there could be layoffs by August if things do not improve.
Our journalists are still out there, our cameramen are still at work, but there is a heavy burden that we all carry that people will soon lose their jobs and that is just sad.
How has your station’s closure impacted your journalists?
So to us, by singling out ABS-CBN, by shutting it down, it’s been a chilling attack on our press freedom rights. Maybe that was not the intent of some people because they really believed it was a matter of enforcing the law but the cease and desist order has intimidated our journalists and the news organization.
There have been instances where a few of my reporters expressed their worry, fear, apprehension, anxiety about the stories they cover. They are worried that a story they were doing might land the company in more trouble, or might cost us the franchise.
Their apprehension can come in the form of a real serious question, or sometimes in the form of a joke, but it has had a subconscious effect every time they go out, every time they do an interview.
At the same time, especially in the first couple of weeks, [after the closure] we saw our journalists being restricted, being questioned or denied information on the basis that we were closed or shut down.
Maybe it’s ignorance, maybe it’s not having awareness that we have other platforms, but still these incidents do not inspire confidence in the [franchise renewal] process.
What has been lost so far with ABS-CBN’s closure?
There are areas in the Philippines where only ABS-CBN is seen. Our TV Patrol was the most widely viewed news program countrywide prior to the shutdown.
We now lack the finances to do other aspects [of the news], so now we cannot produce documentaries or long-form productions of stories that we want to delve more deeply into and analyze.
We have practically stopped all production of our current affairs program, which is also very useful in making the public aware of issues that affect them.
How has the closure impacted ABS-CBN’s ability to cover the COVID-19 crisis?
This was a double whammy for us. We’ve been hit by COVID-19 and that has meant limited movement for some of our journalists. We had to adjust the number of people reporting for work in the studios and working in the newsroom because we didn’t want to risk infection among our staff.
Since the crisis began back in February, I’ve had to issue two sets of guidelines for our journalists to both keep them safe and make sure we get the facts out in a time of great fear and uncertainty. We were very careful about our role as information providers.
So we were already operating under a crisis situation [before the closure]. I was very concerned about getting enough information, so sometime in April I modified the guidelines and by this time we were able to get personal protective equipment and I gave our journalists more latitude in covering some danger zones, because before I didn’t want them to go near hospitals and emergency rooms.
But recently we decided that it wasn’t enough for us to just be outside the area where this is happening.
What is your view of the state of press freedom in the Philippines?
Since the [presidential] campaign of 2016, we have seen a sinister, concentrated attempt by some bad actors to really paint or portray legitimate media organizations in a negative light.
We’ve seen attacks on media by social media armies that have been dangerous and sustained. Sadly, that has been used by a lot of people, and we see that all over the world, to discredit independent media.
You said you had a “journalist’s premonition” that something bad could befall ABS-CBN. Could you elaborate?
The situation came to a head in the beginning of the year when the solicitor general filed a petition against our company questioning the validity of the franchise itself.
That charge [has not been decided on by the high court], but since then it’s been one piece of bad news after another. Finally, our CEO was served and to us working in the news it was really something that hurt. We felt it was the start of something darker.
Are you hopeful that ABS-CBN will eventually return to the airwaves? Are you hopeful for the future of Philippine press freedom?
I want to be hopeful, I really, really do. And in the long-term I believe that the freedoms we fought for more than 30 years ago [against the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship] will win out.
However, in the near term, I know it will get worse before it gets better. I know that our [company] leadership is doing its best to put ABS-CBN back on the air. We are prepared to defend the company and the network against critics and naysayers.
But this has become a highly politicized matter and I am hoping that the public that ABS-CBN has served in so many ways for so many years would support us and not just stand idly by and allow this shutdown to continue.
While I want to be hopeful, I also am very worried about how other forces will see it differently and take advantage of the situation.
Editor’s note: The status of the solicitor general’s petition has been corrected in the 25th paragraph.