Government crackdown on press continues in Philippines as Congress denies a license for ABS-CBN

In a vote at the congressional committee for franchises, pro-Duterte legislators blocked ABS-CBN franchise license over “political bias” against the president

July 11, 2020 by Peoples Dispatch
ABS-CBN workers console each other after the network’s broadcasting franchise was rejected by the Congress. Photo: Jonathan Cellona/ABS-CBN

The Philippines Congress denied a new franchise license for ABS-CBN. In a vote, held on Friday, July 10, among the 85-member Committee of Legislative Franchises in the House of Representatives, 70 members voted against the motion for a new franchise and 11 voted in favor.

After a week-long deliberation in the House of Representatives, supporters of president Rodrigo Duterte accused the media house of financial irregularities and political bias, effectively blocking its bid to resume operations on air.

The ABS-CBN Corporation that runs the channel employs over 11,000 workers across the Philippines, both as permanent and contractual employees. It is the largest news broadcaster operating in the Philippines, with an estimated viewership of over 69 million.

The channel’s previously-held 25 year franchise expired in May 2020, and has been off-air since. The renewal of franchise was first tabled in the House of Representatives in 2016, but pro-Duterte legislators delayed the process over various allegations against the broadcaster. The denial of the franchise now, will mean that the channel will continue to be off-air and can also directly lead to job loss for thousands.

The beleaguered media house is seen by many as the last victim of the government’s crackdown on the media. The news channel has been a very frequent target of Duterte, ever since it refused to run ads of his presidential campaign in 2016. Since then the president has attacked its reporting of human rights violations in his government’s anti-drug and anti-insurgency military programs.

Critics of the Rodrigo Duterte government have argued that the franchise was allowed to expire over the channel’s reporting of human rights violations in the government anti-drug campaign and counter-insurgency programs.

In the final days of the hearing, majority legislators in the House have questioned ABS-CBN of financial irregularities and have come out strongly against the renewal. These charges were strongly contested by minority lawmakers, pointing to the fact that none of the national investigation agencies could find any wrong-doing on its part.

In the meanwhile, dozens of workers from the ABS-CBN demonstrated outside the Congress since Monday in support of the franchise. The workers were organized by the National Alliance of Broadcast Unions and called for a “pro-worker” franchise to protect workers.

The response of a majority legislator, Rodante Marcoleta, to minority members summed up the push by the pro-government bloc to take the channel off-air. “It is not the view of the Securities and Exchange Commission that matters here. It is not the opinion of the Department of Justice that will prevail, not even the Bureau of Immigration or other agencies. It is the will of Congress that should be accorded due respect,” said Marcoleta.

Opposition leader and Vice-president Leni Robredo also blasted the House vote on the franchise and warned of the effect it will have on press freedoms in the country. Robredo stated that the decision “has wide implications. This has a chilling effect: it’s not excessive to think that editorial choices of other news organizations might change because of the repression of ABS-CBN.”

Robredo also pointed out the massive loss of jobs the decision will entail. “This takes away the livelihood of thousands of workers under the network’s employ, besides the contractual ones, and other industries that rely on the network’s projects,” she said.

After the vote, representative Carlos Zarate, of the Bayan Muna partylist, made a statement that regardless of the vote, the struggle will continue. “Our fight for freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the citizen’s freedom of information will not end. The battle continues against harassment and tyranny,” said Zarate over a video on social media.

The ABS-CBN corporation will appeal against the rejection of the franchise with the courts. Theirs is not the first such instance of targeting of the press. Last month, veteran journalist and founder of Rappler, Maria Ressa, and Rappler journalist, Reynaldo Santos Jr., were convicted of libel by a local court. The case was widely deemed as a proxy persecution from Duterte of the two journalists, by activists and journalists alike.