Philippine Congress Shuts Down Leading Broadcaster ABS-CBN


MANILA — Philippine lawmakers on Friday formally shut down the country’s largest broadcast network, the latest major blow against the news media as President Rodrigo Duterte cracks down on outlets that have been critical of his leadership.

After 13 hearings, a committee of the House of Representatives — most of whose members are allied with Mr. Duterte — voted by an overwhelming majority to deny ABS-CBN’s application for renewal of its broadcast franchise. The network had been forced off the air in May, after the franchise expired.

“We remain committed to public service, and we hope to find other ways to achieve our mission,” said Carlo Katigbak, ABS-CBN’s president and chief executive, in a statement on Friday. He said the network was “deeply hurt.”

The president’s spokesman, Harry Roque, sought to distance Mr. Duterte from the decision.

“The palace has maintained a neutral stance on the issue as it respects the separation of powers between the two coequal branches of government,” he said. “Much as we want to work with the aforesaid media network, we have to abide by the resolution of the House committee.”

Mr. Duterte has accused ABS-CBN of bias, including favoring a political opponent in the 2016 election, and had earlier warned that he would not allow the renewal of its franchise.

The president’s critics say he has gone after media outlets that closely documented his drug war, which has left thousands of people dead since he took office in 2016.

ABS-CBN ceased operations of its free TV and radio channels by government order after its 25-year franchise expired in May. ABS-CBN still operates a cable channel and internet sites, but the company has told its 11,000 employees that they could be let go by August if its broadcast franchise was not renewed.

After the network went off the air, there was a backlash from millions of Filipinos who rely on it for news, forcing the lower house of Congress to rush hearings on the franchise renewal.

The government has accused ABS-CBN of illegally operating a cable channel, as well as hiding behind what it called a “corporate veil” that allowed foreign investors to own part of the firm. ABS-CBN has denied the allegations.

Fourteen lawmakers who sponsored bills backing the network argued that the hearings had not proven that ABS-CBN broke any regulations that warranted its closure.

“Seventy million Filipinos tune to its programs weekly,” they said in a joint statement. “Now more than ever, in the time of a pandemic, we need a vibrant and independent source of information and news to tell the people what is going on.”

Nonoy Espina, who heads the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said that lawmakers who were seeking to block the franchise renewal had “gripes” to settle. By voting to shut down ABS-CBN, Mr. Espina said, the House “has lost all claim to represent the people and our interests.”

The congressional hearings did shine a light on some shortcomings of big media networks, including unfair labor practices and a lack of self-regulation, analysts said.

“But legislators have no business to say how media should operate,” said Danilo Arao, a journalism professor at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. ABS-CBN, he said, “is being singled out.”

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the decision a “grievous assault on press freedom,” adding, “This move solidifies the tyranny of President Rodrigo Duterte.” The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said it was a “profoundly dark day for journalists.”

As the leading broadcaster in the country, ABS-CBN was known for its prime time flagship news program, “TV Patrol,” as well as soap operas and afternoon variety TV shows.

Along with the online news site Rappler, ABS-CBN has been at the forefront of coverage of Mr. Duterte’s violent drug war.

Recently, a Manila court convicted Rappler’s chief executive, Maria Ressa, and a former staff writer of cyberlibel. Ms. Ressa, an award-winning former CNN journalist, is out on bail while the case is on appeal, but she could face up to six years in prison.

Mr. Duterte has often gone after members of the press that he dislikes. He has called journalists “sons of bitches” and warned that they were not exempt from the possibility of physical attacks.

He has accused Rappler of being funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, though he has never offered evidence for that. This week, he accused Ms. Ressa of being a “fraud” and said a new case could be filed against her. He did not elaborate.

Source : Nytimes