ABS-CBN has been targeted by the country’s President Rodrigo Duterte since 2016, when he accused it of not airing his political campaign advertisements. The company’s networks have also shed light on Duterte’s brutal war on drugs, in which the police force has been accused of executing thousands of drug users and dealers. Duterte has also suggested that ABS-CBN’s family owners should sell the company in order to end his beef with the broadcaster.
The company’s broadcast franchise expired on Monday. But its attempts to renew its license have been wrapped up in political infighting since last year. These have since been made more complicated by the coronavirus outbreak.
On Tuesday the country’s National Telecommunications Commission issued a cease and desist order that said ABS-CBN should “stop operating its various TV and radio broadcasting operations nationwide absent a valid Congressional Franchise as required by law.” The NTC added that ABS-CBN “no longer has a valid and subsisting congressional franchise (as required by the Radio Control Law),” and ordered its regional offices to implement closure.
The NTC gave ABS-CBN 10 days “to respond as to why the frequencies assigned to it should not be recalled.” But ABS-CBN screens went dark in the evening.
“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,” ABS-CBN chairman Mark Lopez said.
Lawmakers in the Philippines’ Congress have argued that they have the sole right to decide on broadcast franchises. Bills proposing ABS-CBN’s license renewal in 2019 have been stalled and not been discussed. More recently, (lower parliamentary body) the House of Representatives has not been able to meet since March and the expansion of the coronavirus crisis.
The NTC earlier said that all permits to operate and maintain broadcast, which expire within the coronavirus quarantine period, would be automatically renewed for 60 days after the country’s lockdown measures. The lockdown in Metro Manila and some other parts of the country runs until May 15.
But that view has seemingly been successfully challenged by Solicitor General Jose Calida. He argued that there is no legal basis to give ABS-CBN even a provisional license without approval from Congress.
“No less than the constitution requires a prior franchise from Congress. Hence, when there is no renewal, the franchise expires by operation of law. The franchise ceases to exist and the entity can no longer continue its operations as a public utility,” Calida said on Sunday.
The pressure by imposed by Duterte and Calida on the regulatory institutions have outraged bodies concerned by declining media freedom and plurality in Asia.
“The Philippines government shows how little it cares about quality information reaching its people during the Covid19 crisis as it shuts down ABS-CBN network,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director, of NGO, Human Rights Watch. “This is a disaster on top of a disaster”
In its annual rating of press freedom, another NGO, Reporters Without Borders ranked The Philippines as the 136th freest in the world, two places lower than the previous year.
“Is the government so blinded by its chief executive’s hatred of an entity that it dares to flaunt our nation’s collective sense of fair play, due process, and common good when the entire country grapples with a (coronavirus) problem infinitely more pressing and dangerous,” the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines asked in a statement. Two journalist have been jailed in The Philippines for their coronavirus reporting.