Philippine lawmakers on Friday rejected the franchise application of ABS-CBN Corp. — a broadcast network critical of President Rodrigo R. Duterte — in what critics see as a grievous assault on press freedom.
Voting 70 to 11, the House of Representatives committee on legislative franchises denied the 25-year extension plea, saying the media giant was “undeserving” of the privilege.
“Not since the dictator Ferdinand Marcos shut down ABS-CBN and other media outlets in 1972 has a single government act caused so much damage to media freedom,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed statement.
“This move solidifies the tyranny of President Rodrigo Duterte who accused ABS-CBN of slights against him and politically targeted it for refusing to toe the government’s line and criticizing his so-called ‘war on drugs,’” he added.
Mr. Robertson said the House vote was “an astounding display of obsequious behavior by congressional representatives, kowtowing to Duterte by agreeing to seriously limit media freedom in the Philippines.”
“This is a black day for media freedom in a country previously regarded as a bastion of press freedom and democracy in the region,” he added.
The tough-talking Mr. Duterte 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.
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.
ABS-CBN President and Chief Executive Officer Carlo Katigbak said they were “deeply hurt” by the House decision.”We have been rendering service that is meaningful and valuable to the Filipino public,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “We remain committed to public service, and we hope to find other ways to achieve our mission.”
The House vote puts in jeopardy the jobs of more than 11,000 workers of the media network, which claims to reach more than 80 million Filipinos here and overseas.
“I am deeply saddened by this episode in the history of our nation,” Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon said in a statement. “It is reminiscent of the dark pages in the history of Philippine press in 1972.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the palace was neutral about the franchise issue.”Much as we want to work with the aforesaid media network, we have to abide by the resolution of the House committee,” he said in a statement.
Speaker Alan Peter S. Cayetano urged the public to “understand why the decision had to be so.”
A technical working group composed of Cebu Rep. Pablo John F. Garcia, Camiguin Rep. Xavier Jesus D. Romualdo and Marikina Stella Luz A. Quimbo endorsed the rejection of the franchise application in a report. Ms. Quimbo dissented.
Quezon City Rep. Franz E. Alvarez, who heads the committee, said ABS-CBN Corp. had 24 hours to appeal the House decision.
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.”
A Philippine trial court last month convicted Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of news website Rappler, Inc. and former researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. guilty for violating a law against cyber-libel.
Critics also viewed the verdict as a major setback for democratic rights in the country. Judge Rainelda H. Estacio-Montesa sentenced the two to six months to six years in prison.
The Justice department in February last year indicted Ms. Ressa, a former CNN investigative reporter, 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 got arrested again for allegedly violating the ban on foreign ownership in media.
Local and international media watchdogs and human rights groups have condemned her arrest. 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 last year’s order by the Securities and Exchange Commission to close its operations for violating foreign-equity restrictions in mass media. Ms. Ressa is also facing tax evasion cases.
The presidential palace said Mr. Duterte did not have a hand in the court ruling. — Patricia S. Gajitos