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Employees light candles outside the headquarters of broadcast network ABS-CBN corp. on May 5, 2020, after the network was ordered to halt operations after its congressional franchise expired, in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines. © 2020 AP Photo/Aaron Favila

(Manila) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte should rescind an order to shut down ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast television and radio network, Human Rights Watch said today. The House of Representatives, whose inaction on bills to renew the broadcaster’s license led to the closure, should promptly renew the franchise.

On May 5, 2020, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), a government regulatory agency under the office of the president, issued a “cease and desist” order against ABS-CBN after the network’s congressional franchise expired the previous day. This came after the government’s chief lawyer, Solicitor General Jose Calida, warned the commission against granting ABS-CBN a provisional extension to operate as some members of Congress had requested. Duterte had said in December 2019 that he would not allow the license renewal: “I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out.”

“The Philippine government shutdown of ABS-CBN reeks of a political vendetta by President Duterte, who has repeatedly threatened the network for criticizing his abusive ‘war on drugs,’” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Congress should stop ducking responsibility and reverse Duterte’s latest attempt to muzzle the press, especially when the public needs timely and accurate information more than ever.”

ABS-CBN stated that it will challenge the shutdown order in court. Although the ruling does not affect its other platforms, such as cable and online, its popular free TV and radio services stopped airing since the evening of May 5.

While the ABS-CBN 25-year congressional franchise expired on May 4, as early as 2014, members of congress already filed bills seeking its renewal. When Duterte became president in 2016, he started complaining about ABS-CBN, accusing the network of being biased against him and criticizing it for failing to air his 2016 presidential campaign advertisements. The network denied the bias charge but apologized to Duterte for its failure to air the ads and explained why.

The shutdown is only the second time ABS-CBN has gone off the air. Founded in June 1946, the network has grown into the most widely viewed broadcaster in the Philippines. Two days after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, he ordered the military to shut down the network. After the “People Power” uprising in 1986 ousted Marcos, President Corazon Aquino returned ABS-CBN to its former owners.

ABS-CBN’s coverage of the “drug war,” in which the police and their agents have extrajudicially executed thousands of alleged drug users and dealers since Duterte took office, has won praise in the Philippines and abroad.

The shutdown of ABS-CBN is the first time the Duterte government has forced a news organization to stop operating. However, it runs parallel to other attempts by the government to intimidate media outlets critical of the administration. The authorities have arrested Maria Ressa, the editor and founder of the news website Rappler, several times on baseless charges. Rappler has done groundbreaking reporting on the “war on drugs,” prompting attacks by the government and its followers on social media.

The Philippines’ license renewal process allows congress to put inappropriate pressure on broadcast networks, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors government compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Philippines is a party, has stated 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, nondiscriminatory, and otherwise in compliance with the Covenant.”

“The Duterte administration is using a back-door method against ABS-CBN as the president’s latest way to suppress freedom of the press,” Robertson said. “Those concerned about public health messaging and the Covid-19 crisis in the Philippines should call on legislators to right this wrong, get ABS-CBN back on the air, and protect media freedom throughout the country.”

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