ABS-CBN, long the leading broadcaster in The Philippines, was Friday denied a bid to win a new franchise. The company had been forced off air in May in what many critics saw as a move to silence critics of the country’s President Rodrigo Duterte.
Since the abrupt decision in May, two of ABS-CBN’s digital channels which were not subject to the same license, were also closed. There have also been multiple discussions of the matter in Congress.
The vote on Friday was the decisive one. And congress decided by a large majority, 70-11, against giving the company a new 25-year franchise.
Duterte is understood to have sought revenge against the broadcaster, which has been consistently critical of his shoot to kill policy in a war on drugs. He also accused the station of refusing his election advertisements.
Duterte’s spokesman Friday said that it had remained neutral over the congressional decision. The franchise decision was “a sole prerogative of Congress that we in the executive recognize,” said Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque.
At other times Duterte has not hidden his animosity. “You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out,” Duterte said in December.
Journalists and human rights organizations quickly condemned Congress’ decision.
“The will of the people will prevail. Today, July 10, 2020, the House of Representative pof the 18th Congress of the Philippines has declared itself enemy of democracy. Today this chamber has lost all claim to represent the people and our interests,” said the National Union of Journalists of The Philippines.
“@HRW denounces Philippine Congress’ denial of franchise to ABSCBN, calls it a grievous assault on press freedom, and a black day for democracy,” said Human Rights Watch.
“When you look at it, ‘kill’ is very much in keeping with the theme of this regime. Kill, kill, kill,” said Vergel Santos, trustee of the media watchdog, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. “You didn’t just remove ABS-CBN’s rights, you stripped the people of their right to know.”
The Philippines has long been one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work. Kidnappings and murders of reporters are regular occurrences. It ranks 136th among 180 countries and territories on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Duterte has himself waged war on parts of the media. “Just because you are a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you are a son of a bitch. Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong,” he told media in 2016, the year he was elected.
Last month a court found Maria Ressa, journalist and editor of online publication Rappler, and reporter Reynaldo Santos, guilty of cyber libel. Ressa too has been a consistent critic of Duterte.
The Rappler case relates to a 2012 story that linked a prominent businessman to a judge and to drug gangs. When a 2017 libel complaint by the businessman failed state prosecutors instead took up the case. They used the cyber crimes law which was not on the statute at the time of the story’ publication in 2012.