The Philippines’ leading TV network ABS-CBN was ordered by the government’s telecommunications agency to cease operations on May 5, sparking outcry from the public and human rights groups, as well as a call of solidarity from fellow embattled outlet Rappler.
The National Telecommunications Agency filed an immediate ‘cease and desist’ order on 5 March after the network’s 25-year franchise licence had expired pending a renewal hearing in congress that was delayed, in part, to the coronavirus lockdown.
The media giant went off-air just before 8pm on Tuesday following the decision, leaving millions without critical information of Covid-19 pandemic, many of whom are living under lockdown measures in the capital and major cities till mid-May.
“Millions of Filipinos will lose their source of news and entertainment when ABS-CBN is ordered to go off-air on TV and radio tonight . . . when people need crucial and timely information as the nation deals with the Covid-19 pandemic,” the broadcaster said in a statement yesterday.
The Philippines have been one of the hardest hit countries for Covid-19 in Southeast Asia, with 9,684 cases and over 600 deaths so far.
Journalists and media watchdogs have accused President Rodrigo Duterte of purposefully rejecting licence renewal proposals, having previously threatened to shut the broadcaster over their critical coverage of his administration’s decisions.
A reporter for Rappler, an online Filipino news organisation also in the government’s firing line, Ralf Rivas, told the Globe that journalists at Rappler believe that this is an “act of betrayal” against the public that ABS-CBN serves, especially as the country faces a pandemic.
“Duterte has repeatedly said that he wants the network shut, even asking its owners to sell, so he cannot deny his hand on this matter,” Rivas said. “There were at least nine bills filed in congress for the franchise renewal, yet legislators did not act on it, clearly showing the President’s influence over them.”
“We in Rappler stand with ABS-CBN and all journalists who continue to shine the light and expose wrongdoing despite state-sponsored efforts to silence them,” he added.
Rappler has reported that the network has 10 days to respond to the order and have the option to appeal the decision in the courts, according to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra.
Duterte’s contempt for ABS-CBN has been widely publicised through repeated threats to block the renewal of their licence since May 2016 when he was first elected.
During a speech in front of government officials at Malacañang in December last year he warned; “Your franchise will end next year. If you expect it to be renewed, I’m sorry. I will see to it that you’re out”.
By systematically refusing to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise, President Duterte’s faction is trampling on the spirit of the 1987 constitution, which enshrines the separation of powers and freedom of the pressDaniel Bastard, Reporters Without Borders
ABS-CBN hosts the Philippines most popular Tagalog-language news station which has broadcast critical coverage of Duterte’s self-proclaimed “war on drugs” which has seen over 12,000 Filipinos killed in a campaign Human Right’s Watch says amounts to crimes against humanity.
This is not the first time the Duterte government has attacked independent media in the Philippines. The government has slapped the editor of Rappler, Maria Ressa with multiple libel charges against the independent news site and have recently arrested two journalists for spreading “fake news” about the coronavirus.
Media advocacy group Reporters without Borders (RSF) said in a press release the closure of the broadcaster would deal a fatal blow to press freedom in the Philippines.
“By systematically refusing to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise, President Duterte’s faction is trampling on the spirit of the 1987 constitution, which enshrines the separation of powers and freedom of the press,” stated Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk
“This network’s TV channels play a major role in providing Philippine citizens with reliable and independent news coverage. If they were to stop broadcasting, media pluralism would be drastically reduced – to the point of recalling the worst period of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and signalling the end of democracy in the Philippines.”
According to RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, the Philippines is placed 134th out of 180 countries, sliding two places lower than in 2019.