By Norman P. Aquino Special Reports Editor
and Charmaine A. Tadalan Reporter
PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte dislikes the press and he’s not afraid to show his disdain for it.
The tough-talking Philippine leader had on numerous occasions unleashed a stream of profanity against dissenting journalists whom he accused of bias and unfair reporting.
Journalists have also been targeted by Mr. Duterte’s Facebook supporters — known bloggers with huge followings and who have fiercely defended him and his policies.
The fight for press freedom goes beyond the Philippines — one of Southeast Asia’s few remaining corners of relatively free and open press — as the world comes to terms with a new breed of populist leaders who wallow in positive coverage and dismiss their critics as “fake news.”
Mr. Duterte has slammed media outlets such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer, ABS-CBN and Rappler for criticizing his government, particularly his war on drugs that has killed thousands of suspected pushers.
The Justice department in February last year indicted Rappler founder Maria Ressa for cyber-libel based on a complaint by a businessman over an article published in 2012, months before the cyber-crime law was passed. The journalist has said the allegations were unfounded.
A month later, she was arrested again for allegedly violating the ban on foreign ownership in media.
Local and international media watchdogs and human rights groups have condemned the arrest of the former CNN investigative reporter. New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Mr. Duterte’s government “to cease and desist this campaign of intimidation aimed at silencing Rappler.”
Rappler, which Mr. Duterte has called a “fake news outlet,” is also appealing a 2018 order by the Securities and Exchange Commission to close its operations for violating foreign-equity restrictions in mass media.
The news website, which the presidential palace has banned from covering Mr. Duterte’s events, also faces tax evasion cases together with its founder.
Just recently, Mr. Duterte’s government has renewed his attacks on ABS-CBN Corp., with his chief government lawyer asking the Supreme Court to revoke the media network’s franchise, which is expiring in March.
Solicitor General Jose Calida accused ABS-CBN of using an “elaborately crafted corporate veil” to allow foreign investors to take part in its ownership.
Like Rappler, ABS-CBN allegedly violated the ownership restriction when it issued Philippine depositary receipts to foreigners.
The media network has called the lawsuit “an effort to shut down ABS-CBN to the serious prejudice of millions of Filipinos who rely on the network for news, entertainment and public service.”
Presidential spokesman Salvador S. Panelo has said that while Mr. Duterte’s displeasure at ABS-CBN might have a basis, he had nothing to do with the lawsuit. The President also did not have a hand in the Rappler suits, he said.
Critics have said the issue of ABS-CBN’s franchise has become both personal and political. Mr. Duterte had openly harbored a grudge against the broadcaster.
In 2017, he accused ABS-CBN of swindling after it refused to run political ads he had paid for during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Mr. Duterte had also criticized the broadcaster for airing news stories about his alleged secret bank accounts. He said he would block the renewal of the company’s franchise if he had his way.
“I will not let it pass,” he said in 2018. “Your franchise will end. You know why? Because you are thieves.”
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility on Feb. 11 called the case against the network a “dangerous attempt to control and silence free press.”
“After the questionable ouster of Ma. Lourdes Sereno as chief justice of the Supreme Court, Calida appears to believe he has found a magic formula,” the local media watchdog said in a statement.
“Barely two years after that sorry scandal, the quo warranto rears its ugly head a second time during this administration,” it added, referring to the Solicitor General’s lawsuit. It also said the lawsuit “clearly serves the interests of a sulking President.”
Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a lawyer and research fellow at the Ateneo de Manila University Policy Center, said the case against ABS-CBN should have been filed before a trial court.
“The proper move is to file this original action in the regional trial court and not the Supreme Court,” he said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
Mr. Yusingco also said the Duterte administration should have waited instead for the franchise to expire instead of seeking to revoke it in court.
“If Mr. Duterte does not want the franchise renewed, then he should present a convincing case to Congress,” he said. “He can also make a good case to the public. Then the latter can pressure their representatives in Congress to deny ABS-CBN a franchise to operate.”
Antonio A. Ligon, a business professor at De La Salle University in Manila, said the attacks on the broadcaster are not healthy for a democratic nation such as the Philippines.
“While the issue is not directly about press freedom, government refusal to extend the media network’s franchise could stifle press freedom,” Mr. Ligon, a lawyer, said by telephone.
“Mr. Duterte’s attacks on ABS-CBN are consistent with the Executive branch’s earlier attempts to harass critics, both media groups and opposition politicians, with legal cases,” Maria Ela L. Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
She added that the broadcaster’s only hope is in the Senate, which could cross party lines and assert its independence by pushing ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal.
Some lawmakers have argued that ABS-CBN may continue operating pending congressional debates on its franchise renewal.
Senator Grace Poe, who heads the Committee on Public Services, has said the government lawsuit only covers the network’s current franchise that is expiring in March.
A bill seeking to extend the network’s franchise for another 25 years had been filed as early as the 16th Congress under then President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino.
Several bills were refiled in the 17th Congress but did not progress at the House committee on legislative franchises until it adjourned in June 2019. At least 10 House bills seeking to extend the network’s franchise are pending at the same committee, led by the same chairman — Palawan Rep. Franz E. Alvarez.
Speaker Alan Peter S. Cayetano on Friday said the franchise renewal would not be tackled ahead of the March 2020 expiration as the chamber focuses on more important matters.
He said congressmen could look at the franchise extension by May or after the President’s annual state of the nation address in July.
The Senate, on the other hand, wants to exercise its oversight function over the ABS-CBN franchise by calling for an inquiry into the allegations against the media company.
Opposition Senator Franklin M. Drilon on Tuesday said the high court could not prevent the Senate from summoning the network’s officials as a committee inquires into the franchise “in aid of legislation.”
This comes after Mr. Calida asked the tribunal to issue a gag order on ABS-CBN pending the government’s lawsuit. (Read related article: “State lawyer asks SC to issue gag order vs ABS-CBN”).
“Such gag order, if ordered, cannot serve as a prohibition for ABS-CBN to appear and testify before the Senate panel,” said Mr. Drilon, who has filed a resolution seeking to extend the franchise.
“The Constitution and various jurisprudence have many times upheld the power of the Senate to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation and to exercise its oversight power,” he added.