One of the Philippines largest and most influential broadcasting networks has been forced off the air after lawmakers allied with President Rodrigo Duterte sat on a decision to renew the station’s license, a move condemned by critics as an attack on the country’s free press.
Media company ABS-CBN, known for its unflinching coverage of the Duterte administration, was ordered to close by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) after its broadcast license, which is granted by the Congress of the Philippines, expired on Tuesday.
It comes after lawmakers failed to take up a handful of bills over the past six months that would have allowed ABS-CBN to keep operating under a new license. Allies of Duterte currently control both houses of the Philippines’ parliament.
The network complied, ending its broadcast after playing the national anthem and thanking its engineers just before 8 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
The order for ABS-CBN to cease operations comes as much of the Philippines, including Metro Manila, remains under strict lockdown, as the country attempts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. To date, the Philippines has reported almost 10,000 cases and more than 600 deaths from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“Millions of Filipinos will lose their source of news and entertainment when ABS-CBN is ordered to go off-air on TV and radio tonight … People need crucial and timely information as the nation deals with the Covid-19 pandemic,” ABS-CBN said in a statement on Tuesday.
According to CNN Philippines, the decision not to renew ABS-CBN’s license marks the first time the broadcaster has been forced off the air since September 1972, when then-President Ferdinand Marcos placed the country under martial law.
In a statement on Facebook, the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines condemned the refusal to renew the broadcaster’s license, saying it threatened press freedom “at a time when the public needs an unfettered press the most.”
“As the Philippines reels from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, ABS-CBN’s critical eye is needed now more than ever to help inform the public,” the statement said, adding the decision was “clearly a case of political harassment.”
Since becoming president in June 2016, Duterte has repeatedly threatened and disparaged the country’s media, accusing outlets of creating “fake news” and referring to journalists as “spies” and “sons of bitches.”
ABS-CBN has come under particular attack, owing to its critical coverage of Duterte’s brutal “war on drugs,” which has resulted in the death of more than 6,600 people since it began in June 2016, according to police records.
Duterte has frequently threatened to take ABS-CBN off the air, including during a swearing-in ceremony in November 2019 when he said they would be “out” in 2020, according to CNN Philippines.
“If you are expecting [a renewal], I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out,” Duterte said at the time.
But in an interview with the Philippines TV network ABS News Channel (ANC), Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque downplayed the role of the president’s office in the media company’s problems.
“He really is neutral and [wants] to let all his allies know that he will not hold it against them. It will not endear him either way. They can vote as they wish,” he said Tuesday.
The decision on whether or not to renew the station’s license has been with the Philippines House of Representatives for more than six months, with House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano previously pledging in October to tackle the issue by the end of 2019.
Even though 11 bills were introduced to renew the 25-year license, according to the Philippines News Agency (PNA), no progress was made on the renewal before it expired.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said in a statement on Twitter that the failure to renew the license sent “a clear message.”
“What Duterte wants, Duterte gets … And it is clear, with this brazen move to shut down ABS-CBN, that he intends to silence the critical media and intimidate everyone else into submission,” the statement said.
Multiple attempts by the company and lawmakers to receive provisional authority to keep broadcasting were unsuccessful, according to a statement from the company, leading the NTC to issue a cease and desist letter to ABS-CBN.
Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri told PNA the cease and desist order was “irregular and improper” during the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m really saddened by the move of NTC. We can cite many instances when the NTC granted provisional authority for those still applying for their franchises,” he said.
Founded in 1953, ABS-CBN is one of the most watched television stations in the Philippines, providing both news and entertainment programs, while employing about 11,000 people.
The cease and desist order covers all of the network’s 42 television stations, 10 digital broadcast channels, and 23 radio stations, according to PNA.
ABS-CBN is not the first news organization to experience trouble operating in the Philippines under the Duterte administration.
Several top executives at upstart media company Rappler, a vocal critic of President Duterte, were arrested in 2019. CEO Maria Ressa was charged with violating the anti-dummy law, legislation related to securities fraud.
Ressa claimed that her arrest was a politically motivated action by the Duterte administration to silence her. “If you’re a reporter in the Philippines, this is part of daily life. It’s like pollution in the air,” she said in an interview with CNN.
On Tuesday, ABS-CBN said that they had been assured there was no move in the works to shut down the network permanently and they intended to continue providing a service to the Philippines as soon as they could.
“We trust that the government will decide on our franchise with the best interest of the Filipino people in mind, recognizing ABS-CBN’s role and efforts in providing the latest news and information during these challenging times,” the company said in their statement.
Speaking to PNA, several senators said they didn’t see renewal being an issue into the future, but didn’t give a timeline of when it might take place.