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Duterte under fire for 'assault on media freedom'

Philippine president accused of 'politically motivated' campaign to close down broadcaster ABS-CBN

UCA News reporter, Manila

UCA News reporter, Manila

Updated: February 11, 2020 08:34 AM GMT
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Duterte under fire for 'assault on media freedom'

A man attends a protest in support of broadcaster ABS-CBN in Manila on Feb. 10 after Philippine government lawyers moved to strip the nation's biggest media group of its operating franchise. (Photo: AFP)

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been accused of abusing regulatory powers by seeking to end the franchise of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcasting network.

The Office of the Solicitor General filed a petition on Feb. 10 before the Supreme Court seeking to nullify the franchise of ABS-CBN, which has angered Duterte by criticizing his war on drugs and other policies.

The legal action could prevent Congress from extending the 25-year-old network’s permit, which expires on March 30.

“Philippine legislators have a responsibility to uphold media freedom and resist administration efforts to pressure news outlets to toe the government’s line,” said Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“President Duterte’s administration should cease its politically motivated legal actions against the network.”

Duterte has accused ABS-CBN of “swindling” him by not airing his advertisements during the 2016 presidential campaign, a charge the network has denied. He has also urged the media company to sell its assets, vowing that he would make sure its franchise would not be renewed.

Duterte has accused the network of being sympathetic to the political opposition. Its owners, the Lopez family, are long-time political opponents of the former Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship.

The legal action contends that the network has engaged in “abusive practices” that violate its franchise. It also alleged that ABS-CBN allowed foreigners to invest in the company in violation of the constitution.

ABS-CBN said in a statement that it “complies with all pertinent laws governing its franchise and has secured all necessary government and regulatory approvals for its business operations.” It called the petition an attempt to shut down its operations.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Philippines is a party, states that governments “must avoid imposing onerous licensing conditions … on the broadcast media. The criteria for the application of such conditions and license fees should be reasonable and objective, clear, transparent, non-discriminatory and otherwise in compliance with the covenant.”

News website Rappler and its editor, Maria Ressa, are facing numerous court cases as a result of their critical coverage of the drug war, which has led to many extrajudicial killings by police.

“The administration’s attempt to cancel ABS-CBN’s franchise or deny its extension is not just an attack on a single network but an all-out assault on media freedom,” Conde said. “Complaints against broadcasters should be addressed in the proper forum, such as the National Telecommunications Commission.”

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