Philippines Government Seeks Shutdown of ABS-CBN TV Giant

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration

The Philippines’ leading broadcast group ABS-CBN may have its license revoked. The move is widely seen as an attack on media freedom in the country.

On Monday the government’s solicitor general filed a petition with the country’s Supreme Court, against ABS-CBN and its subsidiary ABS-CBN Convergence. The petition asserted that the company had violated laws on foreign ownership, and that it had illegally set up a pay-TV operation and a channel for which it did not have a license.

Formed in 1946, and now counting 11,000 employees, ABS-CBN is publicly listed on the Philippine Stock Exchange. It operates across free-TV, pay-TV, and cable and satellite through Sky. With Star Cinema, it is also The Philippines’ largest film company by revenue and film release numbers. ABS-CBN was seized and shut down in September 1972, after then-Philippines leader Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. ABS-CBN would return to the air in 1986 after the People Power Revolution.

Internationally, ABS-CBN owns The Filipino Channel, which operates in over 40 countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, and Japan.

“We want to put an end to what we discovered to be highly abusive practices by ABS-CBN,” the solicitor general, Jose Calida, said in a statement. “A franchise is a special privilege granted by the state, and should be restricted only to entities which faithfully adhere to our constitution and laws.”

The company currently has a 25-year mandate, which is due for renewal by the end of March. Motions in parliament to renew the franchise have been made since July last year, but have not yet been examined by the appropriate committee.

The Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly confronted ABS-CBN, following the group’s refusal to give airtime to his 2016 election campaign advertisements. In December he attacked the company and advised shareholders to get sell. “I will make sure that you will remember this episode of our times forever,” he said at the time. Calida denied that politics were behind the decision to file the petition.

Duterte made similar foreign-ownership accusations about Rappler, an online publication which had been vocal in its criticism of the Duterte government’s brutal anti—drug campaign, and several court cases are pending. Duterte has also attacked foreign media including the New York Times and The Washington Post.

“These actions are part of a broader crackdown on media outlets and civil society groups that dare criticize him (Duterte),” lobby group Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“This proves without a doubt that this government is hell bent on using all its powers to shut down the broadcasting network,” said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines “We must not allow the vindictiveness of one man, no matter how powerful, to run roughshod over the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of the press and of expression, and the people’s right to know.”