In Eastern Visayas, Typhoon Yolanda was last time ABS-CBN went off air
LEYTE, Philippines – While May 6 was, for many young people across the country, the first time they saw broadcast giant ABS-CBN go off the air, those in the Eastern Visayas have experienced these before.
This happened in November 2013, when Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) pummeled the islands of Leyte, Samar and Biliran. Strong wind and heavy rain did not just take down one channel, but all TV channels and telecommunications lines, as well, cutting off the entire region from communication.
The Eastern Visayas region – also one of the poorest regions in the country – was the hardest hit by the super typhoon.
According to government figures, over 6,000 died during Yolanda, while some humanitarian groups placed the death toll at above 10,000.
“After Yolanda, I had to listen to the radio because it was the only medium available, cable service also wasn't available,” Rendzborg C. Bautista, a pharmacy student from the University of Santo Tomas told Rappler in an interview.
Bautista is based in Metro Manila, but returned home to Dulag, Leyte, days before the lockdown. (READ: Metro Manila's lockdown begins)
Parallels with Yolanda
Bautista said while the situation was not exactly the same, he saw parallels between now and when TV signal and communication lines were down after Yolanda. “[P]eople who have no other means to access other channels on their TVs have to go back solely to radio. The only difference is that for those who are fortunate, there are other channels," Bautista said in a mix of Waray-Waray and English.
The ABS-CBN shutdown was ordered by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), after the channel’s congressional franchise expired (READ: EXPLAINER: Can ABS-CBN operate past its franchise expiration date?)
Today, the Eastern Visayas faces another crisis with the coronavirus pandemic.
A widespread outbreak has not yet happened in the region with only 20 confirmed cases since the pandemic began. However, there are fears that if local officials are not careful, especially with the recent lifting of the enhanced community quarantine, an outbreak could spell disaster for the region’s fragile rural health system and its low capacity to handle severe cases.
According to data from the Department of Health, there are only a total of 16 ICU beds, 218 isolation beds, 60 ward beds and 27 ventilators, for the 4.4 million people in the region.
Information dissemination 'crucial'
University of the Philippines Tacloban mass communications instructor Marilou Morales said that taking proactive measures to prevent the spread of the virus is crucial. Media outlets play an important role in spreading the word to the far-flung households about how to protect themselves during the pandemic.
“With lesser outlets for info dissemination is the reduction of our [audience’s] access to info,” Morales said. “Today, not just in the time of a pandemic, but also of fake news, we need more sources of info,” she added.
She said that while there is information available online, there are still many areas that don’t have access to the internet.
Only 34% of those surveyed in the Visayas in a 2019 Social Weather Stations survey said they use the internet regularly.
“Imagine if this pandemic did not – even in a split moment – land on any broadcast medium,” the mass communications teacher said in a mix of Waray-Waray and English. “Would people be implored to wear face masks, follow social distancing guidelines, or hoard sanitizers?,” she added.
Morales said that in communities “that cannot pick up any other channel but ABS-CBN 2," this government has "blindsided them," and called the situation dangerous." Morales said, “They might not know when the virus is already knocking on their door.”
TV Patrol Eastern Visayas (formerly TV Patrol Tacloban), the only Waray-Waray language newscast broadcast on the region’s free-to-air channel, took 3 weeks to be restored after Yolanda.
This time it's been off the air for 8 days so far and counting. The localized newscast will only be available online until a provisional franchise, passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, will be signed by President Rodrigo Duterte.
Aside from radio stations, there are newspapers available like the Leyte-Samar Daily Express and the Eastern Visayas Mail. Both are English-language newspapers.
According to Cornelia Jabiguero, a management student from UP Tacloban, without ABS-CBN, the only broadcast news available is GMA’s Balitang Bisdak, which is in the Cebuano language and focused on news in the Central Visayas, as well as the Cebuano-speaking part of Leyte.
For residents like Jabiguero, having a localized newscast in the regional language is a big deal. “Having Cebu-centric content and language may not be relevant to people of Eastern Visayas,” Jabiguero said.
The newscast played a crucial role in reconnecting residents with their loved ones through its broadcasts after it was restored in 2013. They also highlighted essential needs of communities affected by the typhoon in the various localities, like food, water, temporary shelters, and even where they could get stress debriefings.
Attack on press freedom
But beyond information access related to the pandemic, Morales said that it was important to push back on the shutdown as it was an “attack on press freedom.”
“It is an attack on press freedom. Shooting down an avenue for news and information without any clear explanation is undeniably an attack to press freedom,” she said.
Those brave enough to practice journalism in a region hostile to independent reporting know the threats to press freedom all too well.
Journalists face red-tagging, violence, and harassment in a place known for its volatile political environment and increasing military operations against communist rebels.
In February, Frenchiemae Cumpio, director of Tacloban-based independent media outlet Eastern Vista claims to have been surveilled before she was arrested by police with 4 other activists on illegal weapons charges. (READ: Altermidya correspondent, 4 human rights leaders arrested in Tacloban)
Altermidya denounced that incident as an attack on the local press. “[We believe] that state forces are behind the relentless harassment against Eastern Vista, which has continuously reported on human rights issues in the Visayas including on military abuses,” they said.
Morales said removing ABS only worsened the already dire lack of independent news in the Eastern Visayas.
“The question on urgency must be tied back to the question, ‘why now?'" she said. “Do the people need it to be off air during this time? Are they that eager to close down the network?” – Rappler.com
Eiver Villegas is a student journalist from the University of San Jose Recoletos in Cebu City, but is currently in Leyte where he is originally from.