The Philippines’ largest broadcast network, ABS-CBN, went off air early evening of May 5 after the government ordered the network to stop operations a day after its franchise expired.
More than 70 radio and television stations and frequencies under the network’s franchise across the country have gone off the air.
In its order, the National Telecommunications Commission said “absent a valid Congressional Franchise, as required by law,” the network should stop its various television and radio operations.
The government body tasked with awarding broadcasting licenses ordered ABS-CBN to “show cause” in writing to explain why the frequencies assigned to it should not be recalled.
It gave the network 10 days to respond to the order. After ABS-CBN files its response, a hearing will be scheduled.
In a statement, the management of ABS-CBN said it will abide by the order and will stop operation.
“We did not violate the law. This case appears to be an attempt to deprive Filipinos of the services of ABS-CBN,” read the company statement.
“We trust that the government will decide on our franchise with the best interest of the Filipino people in mind,” read a statement issued by the network.
It expressed hope that the government will recognize “ABS-CBN’s role and efforts in providing the latest news and information during these challenging times.”
The network vowed to remain “committed to being in the service of the Filipino,” adding that it will “find ways to continue providing meaningful service to them.”
In March 1995, Congress enacted Republic Act No. 7966 that granted the network a 25-year franchise to operate.
There were at least nine bills seeking the renewal of the network’s franchise, but Congress was unable to act on it.
ABS-CBN has been the target of President Rodrigo Duterte’s tirades, accusing the network of irresponsible reporting.
In April 2017, the president accused the network of “swindling” after ABS-CBN reportedly failed to air Duterte’s paid campaign advertisements during the 2016 elections.
On Dec. 30, 2019, the president told ABS-CBN officials to “just sell” the network because Congress is “unlikely to renew” its franchise.
Attack on media freedom
Various groups have condemned the government’s decision to shut down ABS-CBN.
Amnesty International Philippines described the move as “an outrageous attack on media freedom.”
“It is especially reckless as the country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Filipino people need accurate information from independent sources,” said Butch Olano of Amnesty International.
He said that the closure of the network “is yet another attack on freedom of expression in recent weeks” following threats against people who criticized the government’s response to the pandemic.
“This is a dark day for media freedom in the Philippines, reminiscent of martial law when the dictatorship seized control over news agencies,” said Olano.
“The lessons of history should be a reminder to the government not to go down this path, press freedom must be upheld and this attack on ABS-CBN should be vigorously opposed by all who care about free speech,” said Amnesty International.
Human Rights Watch called for the rejection of “this despotic move to harass and silence” the network.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the human rights group, said the closure of ABS-CBN “comes at the worst possible time … when accurate and truthful information is needed crucially.”
In a statement, the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said the order “threatens press freedom at a time when the public needs an unfettered press the most.”
“As the Philippines reels from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, ABS-CBN’s critical eye is needed now more than ever to help inform the public,” said the group.
It said the government decision “is clearly a case of political harassment” against the network, which has become “a pillar of Philippine democracy.”
The organization called on Congress “to independently act” on pending measures seeking to renew the network’s franchise “as soon as possible.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines claimed that the government move is Duterte’s “personal vendetta against the network, whose franchise renewal he pledged to block.”
“It sends a clear message … that he intends to silence the critical media and intimidate everyone else into submission,” read the union’s statement.
The group called on Filipino journalists “to stand together and resist this government’s brazen assault on freedom of the press and of expression.”
The Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines said it is “stunned by the callousness of depriving the Filipino people of a public information channel in these trying times.”
“For the government to cancel the franchise of ABS-CBN in the middle of this crisis is a wanton disregard for the interest of the public,” it said.