The Philippines’ broadcasting regulator ordered the country’s top entertainment and media corporation to immediately cease operations on May 5 in what critics say was a huge blow to press freedom ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media group, shut down after its 25-year franchise expired on May 4. The order said the network would be in violation of the Radio Control Law if it continued operating without having obtained a franchise from Congress. “ABS-CBN no longer has a valid and subsisting congressional franchise as required by law,” the order said. The broadcaster provoked Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ire during the 2016 presidential election campaign by allegedly not airing his political adverts. Duterte had been threatening the network since then.
“I’m telling you now, I will be filing charges of multiple syndicated estafa
[fraud]. You have no shame, your faces are too thick, you sons of bitches,” Duterte said in a speech attacking the network in 2017. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque dismissed allegations of a presidential vendetta against the network. “President Duterte is neutral on that issue [Congress granting a franchise]. So, our lawmakers should not worry if they decide to award another franchise to ABS-CBN,” Roque said on May 6. Many, however, were unconvinced that Duterte had no hand in ABS-CBN’s closure. Civil rights groups accused Duterte of having closed the network because it was critical of his policies. “This is how liberties die … the [closure] order undermines the freedom of the press by singling out the one network that had been publicly identified as having incurred the ire of the president,” said the Free Legal Assistance Group, a group of human rights lawyers. ABS-CBN had 11,000 employees whose jobs have been lost unless a congressional franchise is granted allowing the network to resume operations. A renewal of the franchise had been pending in Congress, which critics say is dominated by Duterte’s allies. “Duterte owns Congress. It is a fact. He may say he is neutral about this issue but he has the numbers there," said one network employee who wished to remain anonymous. “If Congress will not act [to grant a franchise], then it is tantamount to saying, we will have no jobs while Duterte is president. We are helping thousands of Filipinos during this pandemic. Why would they do this?” Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University released a statement backing ABS-CBN, saying the closure “deprives the Filipino people a vital source of information, entertainment and public service.” “Ateneo de Manila University sees in the forced shutdown of ABS-CBN shades of martial law almost 50 years ago when airwaves went silent as the dictatorship sought to quell the free exchange of news, information and commentary.”
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