MANILA — A major Philippine news network that recently lost its broadcast license closed a dozen regional news operations on Friday, in what advocates called the latest blow to the country’s independent press.
The network, ABS-CBN, which President Rodrigo Duterte has frequently accused of bias, said it could not afford to keep the local newsrooms going. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives, which is largely controlled by allies of Mr. Duterte, voted in July not to renew the network’s broadcast franchise; its main channels had already been pulled off the air in May, when its license expired.
But the network’s cable operation remained intact, because it is run by a different unit within ABS-CBN. And until Friday, its regional news teams kept providing coverage for local and national audiences, which viewers could still watch on cable and the internet.
For many of those viewers, the greatest loss will be “TV Patrol,” a popular nightly newscast that has been produced for three decades. Local versions of the program combined national news with regional coverage, delivered in regional dialects. Friday’s “TV Patrol” was the last in that format, though a more limited version will still be produced in Manila, the capital.
“My heart breaks for our colleagues in the regions, who tried to serve their public despite severe limitations,” said Maria Regina Reyes, the Manila-based head of news at ABS-CBN. “It’s tragic that local audiences will lose a familiar and crucial source of information, especially at this time.”
Many had seen ABS-CBN’s coverage as a lifeline for Filipinos in remote provinces as they struggle to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Its regional news operations had their own broadcast channels before the network lost its license; after that, they continued to produce “TV Patrol” and other programming, which they sent to Manila to be shown online and through cable.
Regional employees also “did their best to continue producing and streaming our local ‘TV Patrol’ on the regional Facebook pages and YouTube channels,” Ms. Reyes said.
Mr. Duterte has denied that he had anything to do with Congress’s decision not to renew the network’s franchise. But he often accused ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcaster, of biased coverage of his antidrug war, which has left thousands dead since he became president in 2016. He has called himself a “casualty” of the network, which is owned by the Lopez family.
The family’s now-deceased patriarch, Eugenio Lopez, escaped from jail and fled to the United States in the 1970s, during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. He returned after Mr. Marcos’s downfall in 1986 and re-established the network. Mr. Duterte, another strongman leader, is an admirer of the late Mr. Marcos.
ABS-CBN said it was no longer profitable to keep operating its regional newsrooms because it had lost so much advertising revenue since being taken off the air. It said thousands of staff members would lose their jobs. ABS-CBN Regional, the arm of the company that oversees the local operations, will also stop producing its nine morning shows, which combined news and entertainment coverage.
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines called the developments “an avoidable national tragedy.”
“Millions of Filipinos outside Metro Manila will lose a fast and credible source of news today as they struggle through a life-threatening crisis,” the association said in a statement. “Many isolated and disaster-prone villages unreached by other networks can dangerously lose their access to national news, including government pronouncements.”
Mr. Duterte’s critics say he has gone after media outlets that closely documented his war on drugs, including ABS-CBN and Rappler, an online publication whose chief executive was convicted of cyber libel in June.
Some ABS-CBN staff members were working through grief on their last day. “I am still working and looking for updates for my final report later,” Queenie Casimiro, ABS-CBN’s news chief in the southern city of Zamboanga, said on Friday, tears welling up.
Ms. Casimiro led ABS-CBN’s coverage this week of two suicide bombings on the southern island of Jolo, across the strait from Zamboanga, which killed 15 people.
An ABS-CBN journalist in the eastern region of Bicol, Mylce Mella, said that she and some colleagues might set up a news media cooperative. “We are just trying to fill the void of losing ABS-CBN Bicol,” she said. “I am writing my remaining stories now.”
Ms. Casimiro had packed her things from the office, including old VHS tapes of her coverage of past terror attacks. For her last week, she had essentially been on her own, reporting and operating a camera, because the regular staff had already been let go.
“I am trying to come up later with a follow-up report, but I can’t stop crying,” she said. “If only I could sell my tears.”