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On February 10, the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte signaled its intention to shut down ABS-CBN, the largest broadcaster in the Philippines, by submitting a complaint with the country’s highest court to end its franchise.
Critics have denounced the move as the most severe attack upon press freedom in the country yet. But the government claimed that the organization had violated ownership laws and was engaging in “highly abusive practices."
The complaint, submitted to the court by Philippine solicitor general Jose Calida, alleges that ABS-CBN violated the terms under which government-granted franchises are permitted to operate by allowing foreign investors to join the company, something that the constitution of the Philippines prohibits.
The petition also accuses ABS-CBN Convergence, a subsidiary of ABS-CBN, of violating the operating franchise, which is due to expire in March.
According to The New York Times, the Duterte administration’s decision to strip the broadcaster of its operating license comes before the House of Representatives has had the chance to begin discussing matters relating to the renewal of its franchise.
Opposition groups say the complaint is less about violations and more about Duterte’s sustained attack against media organizations who have criticized his leadership.
If Duterte’s administration succeeds in its attempt to remove the franchise of the broadcaster, it will be the second time a Filipino government has shut down ABS-CBN.
Following the declaration of martial law by the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, the government seized the organization and its affiliates. The president of the organization at the time, Geny Lopez, was imprisoned without trial for five years.
The government’s statement
In a statement announcing the move, solicitor general Calida said, “We want to put an end to what we discovered to be highly abusive practice of ABS-CBN benefiting a greedy few at the expense of millions of its loyal subscribers." Calida continued, saying, “These practices have gone unnoticed or were disregarded for years."
The announcement added, “A franchise is a special privilege granted by the state, and should be restricted only to entities which faithfully adhere to our constitution and laws."
The broadcaster was firm in their denial of the accusations. According to an ABS-CBN statement, “The allegations cited by the Office of the Solicitor general in his press statement are without merit."
Refuting the government claim that they had committed franchise violations, the broadcaster said “All our broadcast offerings… have received the necessary government and regulatory approvals and are not prohibited by our franchise."
ABS-CBN said that they “remain committed to our mission to serve the Filipino people especially at this time when millions of Filipinos rely on our services in delivering information" despite the threat of legal action from the government.
Filipino media reaction
Other Filipino media organizations rallied in support of ABS-CBN.
The news website Rappler, an organization Duterte has targeted with legal action in the past, reacted by saying, “We stand with our colleagues at ABS-CBN and share the hope that they will weather this and come out even stronger," the site added, “The Duterte administration, through Calida, is resorting to legal gymnastics to push their own agenda of silencing critical media.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) reacted to the announcement of legal action against ABS-CBN by stating, “This government is hellbent on using all its powers to shut down the broadcast network.
“This is not just about ABS-CBN. This is not just about the Philippine media. This is about whether anyone can or should deprive you, the Filipino people, of your right to know."
Nonoy Espina, the NUJP chairman, expanded upon the implications of the move for the media industry. “If they shut ABS-CBN down, then that’s one big voice lost, and it will make it easier for them to start shutting down the other voices that they do not agree with.”
But for others, like Richard Javad Heydarian, a political scientist and author of “The Rise of Duterte: a Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy," the move was expected.
If the government removes the broadcaster’s license, Heydarian said they could still operate in a “legal grey zone," without any “editorial compromise on the part of the ABS-CBN."
Previous attacks on ABS-CBN and other Filipino media organizations
Since becoming President in 2016, Duterte has been a frequent critic of ABS-CBN. Earlier in his term, he accused the broadcaster of not running his campaign advertisements. The president has also repeatedly vowed in public to block any new license.
In one speech, Duterte taunted the network, advising its owners to sell it. He said “ABS-CBN, your contract is about to expire. If I were you, you’re better off selling it," while adding, “I will make sure that you will remember this episode of our times forever."
Alongside ABS-CBN, the Filipino government has tried to shut down Rappler, a site known for being critical of Duterte. Rappler has been particularly critical of Duterte’s drug war that has left over 6,000 Filipinos dead.
Duterte has called Rappler a “fake news outlet" sponsored by American spies. Despite the government revoking its license in 2018 and the arrest and re-arrest on charges of libel of its editor, Maria Ressa, the site is still operational.