PH forces top broadcaster off air

The Philippines’ top broadcaster ABS-CBN was forced off air Tuesday over a stalled operating licence renewal, drawing fresh charges that authorities were cracking down on press freedom.

Since running afoul of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, ABS-CBN has seen bills to extend its franchise languish in Congress as the leader repeatedly attacked the conglomerate in speeches.

Duterte is notorious for tangling with media outlets critical of his policies, sparking concern that press freedoms have been eroded in the Philippines.

“It’s painful for us that we are being shut down, but it’s also painful for millions of our countrymen who believe that our service is important to them,” chairman Mark Lopez told viewers just before the main channel went dark.

Outside the company’s broadcast compound, a handful of supporters waved placards supporting the network against a backdrop of burning candles.

ABS-CBN’s 25-year licence expired Monday, but officials had previously given assurances the radio, TV and internet goliath would be allowed to operate provisionally.

However, the National Telecommunications Commission’s cease-and-desist order on Tuesday cited the expiration and said the outfit’s operators would have a have to appeal for a return to the airwaves.

Early in his term, Duterte accused the network of failing to broadcast his 2016 campaign advertisements and not returning the payments.

Bills to renew the conglomerate’s franchise have sat for years in the legislature, which is controlled by Duterte’s allies.

‘Blow to press freedom’

Press advocates said the shutdown order was an assault on the right to free speech, as the conglomerate broadcasts news coverage watched by millions daily.

The shut down also comes as the nation battles to contain its the coronavirus pandemic on its territory, and an accompanying flood of online disinformation.

“This is a very serious blow to press freedom in the Philippines,” said Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch. “It’s hard to think that Duterte doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

It appeared the broadcaster would get its renewal after publically apologising to Duterte earlier this year, and the justice minister said the licence was considered extended until Congress took action.

But there has been a lingering threat against the outlet in the form of a case filed in the nation’s top court by the government’s lawyer Jose Calida, which sought ABS-CBN’s immediate closure.

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the case, and Calida has warned it was unlawful for the broadcaster to operate after its licence expired.

Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, was not critical of the shut down, saying: “in the absence of a franchise… ABS-CBN’s continued operation is entirely with the NTC’s decision.”

Several major media outlets in the Philippines have battled with Duterte and then suffered the consequences.

Journalist Maria Ressa faces years behind bars in a case that she and press advocates say was retaliation for the journalism of her website Rappler.

Rappler, which has published stories critical of Duterte’s administration, is also battling a government closure effort.

Both Rappler and ABS-CBN stand accused of violating a constitutional ban on foreign ownership of mass media outlets. They refute the allegations. (AFP)