The Philippines’ top lawyer petitioned the Supreme Court on Monday to revoke the license of the country’s largest television network over alleged “abusive practices,” a move that media advocacy groups denounced as a direct attack on press freedom.
Solicitor General Jose Calida, in petitioning the court to void the license of ABS-CBN Corp., accused the network of violating provisions of its franchise granted by the Philippine Congress. The franchise is to expire next month.
“We want to put an end to what we discovered to be highly abusive practices of ABS-CBN benefiting a greedy few at the expense of millions of its loyal subscribers,” Calida said in a statement.
“These practices have gone unnoticed or were disregarded for years,” Calida said, emphasizing that his decision to file the petition was not politically motivated.
Calida accused ABS-CBN of “abusing the privilege” given by the state when it launched a pay-per-view channel without a permit from the government.
He also accused the network of allowing foreigners to invest in it, saying this violated the 1987 Constitution. It stipulates that mass media ownership and management should be limited to Filipino citizens.
Salvador Panelo, spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, said Calida filed the petition on his own.
“One cannot blame Solicitor General Calida for simply performing this legal obligation, as directed of him by the Rules of Court. Opting not to pursue the petition despite a reasonable belief that one has violated its franchise would, on the other hand, be equivalent to nonfeasance, thereby exposing the solicitor general to prosecution for dereliction of duty,” Panelo said in a statement.
Duterte has been critical of ABS-CBN, and even taunted its owners in December to sell the network, according to Agence France-Presse.
“ABS-CBN, your contract is about to expire. If I were you, you’re better off selling it,” AFP quoted the president as saying at the time. "I will make sure that you will remember this episode of our times forever.”
In his statement on Monday, Panelo said the president was then merely expressing his displeasure toward the TV network because “he felt deceived.”
“These utterances are covered by the free speech clause of our Constitution and have nothing to do with the press freedom of ABS-CBN,” Panelo said.
Similar complaints against Rappler
Last year, the Duterte administration cracked down on Rappler, an online Philippine news portal that has criticized his government’s drug war, which has left thousands of people dead since the president came to power in 2016.
Rappler’s U.S. partners later divested their shares and transferred them to their Filipino partners. Still, Filipina Maria Ressa, Rappler’s chief executive, is fighting off several charges filed against her by the government.
On Monday, Calida said the complaints against the two media companies were similar.
“This simply means that mass media companies operating in the Philippines must be 100 percent Filipino-owned because they play an integral role in a nation’s economic, political, and socio-cultural landscape,” he said.
Officials at ABS-CBN labeled Calida’s petition as harassment. Stripping the network of its franchise would prejudice millions of Filipinos who rely on ABS-CBN for news, entertainment and public service, they said.
“ABS-CBN complies with all pertinent laws governing its franchise and has secured all necessary government and regulatory approvals for its business operations,” the company said in a statement.
“We reiterate that everything we do is in accordance with the law. We did not violate the law. This case appears to be an attempt to deprive Filipinos of the services of ABS-CBN,” it said.
Rights group, journalists react
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the move was an attempt by Duterte to intimidate ABS-CBN, which has been reporting diligently on his drug war.
“With the network’s legislative franchise renewal pending before congress, this case applies undue pressure on legislators who could be forced to toe the Duterte government’s line against the media company,” said Carlos Conde, a researcher for the watchdog’s Asian unit.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) and the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) warned that Calida’s petition was part of Duterte’s sustained attack on the independent press.
“This is not just about ABS-CBN. This is not just about the Philippine media. This is all about whether anyone can or should deprive you, the Filipino people, of your right to know,” the NUJP statement read.
“We must not allow the vindictiveness of one man, no matter how powerful, to run roughshod over the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of the press and of expression, and the people’s right to know,” the group said.
ABS-CBN has been a cornerstone of the free press in the Philippines and holding those in power accountable through its “independent and critical reporting,” said FOCAP, which represents correspondents working for the world’s leading news organizations.
The government move was meant to “politically harass and threaten a pillar of the media industry” that employs thousands of Filipinos, the association said.
It called on members of congress to act independently as well as for the high court to side with the public’s right to truthful and independent news.
“We call on our media colleagues to close ranks in this perilous times,” FOCAP said.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.