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Philippines Congress silences country's biggest broadcaster, making good on Duterte's threat

Philippines biggest broadcaster ordered off the air
Philippines biggest broadcaster ordered off the air 01:37

Manila — After years of attacks from President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines' largest broadcaster officially lost its bid to have its broadcast license renewed on Friday. A vote in the Philippine Congress means ABS-CBN's free TV and radio stations will remain off the air, as they were during former dictator Ferdinand Marcos' martial rule decades ago. Government foes see it as a dramatic continuation of the Duterte government's crackdown on the country's free press.

Lawmakers in the Lower House voted overwhelmingly against bills seeking to grant the media giant a permit to continue using the frequency it had been on for the past 25 years. The network's main stations, which reached over 60 million viewers, went dark in early May after the government ordered them shut down.

"We are deeply hurt that the Committee on Legislative Franchises has denied the franchise application of ABS-CBN," Carlo Katigbak, the broadcaster's President and Chief Executive Officer, said in a statement. "We believe that we have been rendering service that is meaningful and valuable to the Filipino public."

Employees and supporters of television network ABS-CBN hold placards as they protest in front of the House of Representatives in Manila, July 10, 2020.  MIGGY HILARIO/AFP/Getty

Other broadcast entities had been allowed to continue running their programs while Congress deliberated on their licenses, but not ABS-CBN.

In more than a dozen hearings that went on for more than a month, ABS-CBN executives were made to answer allegations of abuse of labor, tax evasion, biased reporting and foreign ownership. Doubts were even raised over whether former chairman Eugenio "Gabby" Lopez III, who was born in the United States to Filipino parents, was in fact Filipino.

On Thursday, the final day of the inquiry, opposition congressman Carlos Zarate said there was no compelling reason to deny ABS-CBN's application after all government agencies cleared the company of any wrongdoing.

Zarate stressed the need to consider public interest, especially as closing down ABS-CBN puts the company's 11,000 employees' livelihoods at risk.

"Why should we add 11,000 more to the number of unemployed in this most difficult time?" he asked in a speech, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic.

But Rodante Marcoleta, one of the staunchest critics of ABS-CBN in Congress, said at the end of the day, "it is the will of Congress that should be accorded due respect."

Human rights and media advocacy organizations denounced the vote as a continuing assault by the Duterte government on the Philippines' free press.

"The decision deprives the Filipino people of an independent source of information when millions are grappling with the coronavirus pandemic," the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said in a statement.  

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Last month, Maria Ressa, an internationally-acclaimed journalist and head of online news service Rappler, was convicted of cyber libel. She faces at least seven more legal cases, all of which she insists are no more than government harassment driven by her website's critical reporting.

President Duterte's office has denied any involvement in both Rappler and ABS-CBN's cases.

"The Palace has maintained a neutral stance on the issue as it respects the separation of powers between the two co-equal branches of government," Harry Roque, Duterte's spokesperson, said in a statement.

But Duterte has openly threatened ABS-CBN, which, like Rappler, has come out with hard-hitting reporting on the president's controversial drug war. Duterte also accused the network of refusing to run a number of his campaign's political ads during the 2016 presidential election.

"I will see to it that you're out," Duterte threatened in December.

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