Philippine regulators on Tuesday (May 5) shut down the country’s largest media company and a frequent target of President Rodrigo Duterte’s tirades, a day after its 25-year congressional franchise expired.
The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) ordered ABS-CBN to stop broadcasting “absent a valid congressional franchise as required by law”.
The 66-year-old entertainment and media conglomerate’s TV channel and radio station went off air on Tuesday evening, as it appeals the closure order.
ABS-CBN’s TV channel is watched by two out of five Filipinos, which is roughly 40 million. The network also has a popular radio station that has a 25 per cent share of the market.
It owns a cable TV channel, and runs a subsidiary offering content online that is popular with millions of overseas Filipinos. These are not covered by the shutdown order.
ABS-CBN has over 10,000 employees.
Many in its long roster of popular news anchors and reporters have gone on to serve the country as vice-presidents, senators, congressmen, governors and mayors.
Mr Duterte has been threatening to shut down ABS-CBN since he took office in 2016.
He accused the network of siding with his political enemies when it refused to air one of his political ads as he was running for president, insisting that it was a “highly abusive practice”.
He also accused the network of tax evasion, and used a profanity on its owners, who are heirs to a powerful political and business clan.
He has said repeatedly he will never sign a law that will extend ABS-CBN’s franchise.
He told ABS-CBN’s owners to just sell their stake, fuelling speculations he wanted an ally to take over the country’s top broadcaster.
ABS-CBN’s owners, in congressional hearings in February, apologised to Mr Duterte.
Mr Duterte accepted the apology but insisted that the network’s fate was up to Congress.
Lawmakers holding hearings on Bills to grant ABS-CBN a new franchise said on Tuesday they were blindsided by the commission’s order.
They were assured earlier by NTC officials and the Justice Ministry that ABS-CBN would be issued a “provisional authority”, so it could remain on-air beyond the coverage of its current franchise.
But Solicitor-General Jose Calida, widely regarded as Mr Duterte’s de facto legal whip, last week warned that the NTC cannot issue such an order.
“(The NTC) should not have been cowed by a mere threat from Calida. This is really upsetting to all of us congressmen right now, and we’re really up in arms against it,” said Representative Antonio Albano, vice-chair of the committee reviewing ABS-CBN’s application for a new franchise.
Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, an ally of Mr Duterte, said he found it “highly irregular” that the NTC would deny ABS-CBN a provisional authority when the Justice Ministry itself had determined that it could do so.
“I know for a fact that there are many stations operating on a provisional authority… We can cite many instances when the NTC granted a provisional authority for those still applying for their franchises,” he said.
Press freedom advocates assailed the NTC’s decision as a blunt attempt to silence Mr Duterte’s critics and stifle dissent.
“It is a serious blow to the freedom of the press, as it is now being sacrificed on the altar of political vendetta,” Representative Carlos Zarate, a human rights lawyer, said in a statement.
The advocacy group Karapatan (Human Rights) said “it is truly abhorrent” that the government would choose to shut down ABS-CBN amid a raging coronavirus pandemic, “where the free press plays a crucial role in keeping the public informed on relevant, verified, and life-saving information”.