President Rodrigo Duterte ramped up his attack on the Philippine media, vowing to block the renewal of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest and most influential broadcast network. “Your franchise will end next year,” the president said on Tuesday. “If you are expecting it to be renewed, I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out.”
This is Duterte’s third such threat against ABS-CBN. He accused the network of unfair reporting, as well as of allegedly taking his advertising money in the 2016 elections but then failing to run his political ads. He earlier threatened to file charges against the media company for allegedly defrauding him. The company has denied the allegations of unfair or biased reporting.
Under Philippine law, broadcasters must secure congressional franchises in order to operate. ABS-CBN’s franchise, issued in 1995, will expire in March 2020. Duterte has exploited this impending renewal to threaten the network, accusing it of slanting its reporting against him and favoring politicians identified with the political opposition. The Lopez family, which controls the network, is known for its activist past, having fought against the Marcos dictatorship. It paid dearly for that opposition when Ferdinand Marcos shut the network down during martial law in 1972. Duterte has politically allied himself with the Marcos family, which has been trying to rehabilitate its long-tattered image of abuse and corruption.
But perhaps the real reason for these threats is ABS-CBN’s critical reporting of Duterte, particularly his murderous “war on drugs.” The network has aired and published award-winning reports on the extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers and users by the police. Apart from ABS-CBN, the government has also targeted Rappler, the online media company that earned Duterte’s ire for its thorough documentation of the “drug war” killings and other abuses.
Duterte is misusing the government’s regulatory powers to settle a score with ABS-CBN. These actions are part of a broader crackdown on media outlets and civil society groups that dare criticize him. Philippine congress members should resist the president’s effort to shut down ABS-CBN. Appeasing a vindictive president who is hell-bent on frustrating accountability for his policies will have far-reaching implications for media freedom, human rights, and democracy in the Philippines.