Baguio (Philippines) (AFP)

Like hundreds of Filipino journalists from the audiovisual giant ABS-CBN, Dhobie de Guzman, a star presenter of a regional television news, finds himself deprived of air, his group very critical of the government having lost its license to operate.

The closure of 53 regional radio and television stations, which broadcast in six languages, also deprives millions of Filipinos of their primary source of information and entertainment.

This radio, television and internet giant, opposed to the policies of populist President Rodrigo Duterte, was forced to close its doors after the drop in its advertising revenues following the non-renewal of its operating license by the Congress.

"It's painful", recognizes Mr. de Guzman, after the broadcast on Friday of his last newscast in the northern region of the island of Luzon.

"You do your job responsibly, you do your part to change the lives of citizens, then at the end of the day you lose your platform," bitterly told AFP, the presenter from his television studio, located 240 kilometers north of Manila.

In July, the Philippine Congress voted against issuing a new 25-year license to ABS-CBN, the previous one of which expired in May. The appeal, which had been filed in the Supreme Court, was dismissed.

The audiovisual group, which is owned by the very wealthy Lopez family, has been broadcasting continuously since 1953, with the exception of the period from 1972 to 1986, when it was seized by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, of whom Mr. Duterte is an admirer.

Since coming to power in 2016, the president has often lashed out at media critical of his policies, including his bloody and controversial campaign against drug trafficking.

Although he denied any involvement in the Congress vote, he had in the past vowed to prevent any renewal of the ABS-CBN license.

Since the loss in May of this license, the audiovisual giant has continued to broadcast a large number of news and popular programs on cable and internet.

However, the fall of a major part of its advertising revenues forced the group to considerably reduce its costs.

- "Very dark day" -

“Unfortunately, ad revenue (from digital) is not as big as that from broadcast, so that's where the challenge now lies,” says Regina Reyes, director of news at ABS. -CBN.

After many regional channels shut down on Friday, most of the network will cease broadcasting on Monday. Many of its star journalists and broadcasters are forced to leave their posts and thousands of jobs are threatened.

For decades, ABS-CBN, which has a vast network across the archipelago, has played an essential role in disseminating information, particularly concerning natural disasters, such as typhoons, earthquakes or the current epidemic of coronavirus.

For many inhabitants, especially the most isolated who have little or no internet access, it is their only source of information.

For example, in some areas, fishermen rely on this information to see if the weather conditions allow going out to sea, says Reyes.

"Not everyone has access to the internet, radio or newspapers," said Micaella Ilao, television journalist in Baguio, north of Manila.

"The suppression (of television broadcasting) deprives the population of reliable information," she stresses.

The Philippine Foreign Correspondents Association has called the shutdown of regional channels of ABS-CBN a "very dark day for independent media" in the country, which ranks 136th out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders' ranking .

"It is a national tragedy that is preventable, inflicted by the very people who should protect Filipinos from all adversity," she said.

ABS-CBN can appeal again, but the appeal can only be successful if members of Congress, controlled by supporters of the president, change their mind.

In the meantime, employees mourn the disappearance of their media.

"It's not just a channel ... it's a relationship, a connection that has been lost," said Stanley Palisada, who headed the regional news group.

"You become the preferred means of communication used by people (..) to complain, to ask for help, to reach officials and government (departments) who can solve their problems."

© 2020 AFP