The Philippine government sought to distance President Rodrigo Duterte from an official order that forced the country’s largest broadcaster to shut down most of its on-air programming, as his spokesman responded Friday to concern voiced by the United States over the move.
ABS-CBN Corp., whose critical news coverage of the Duterte administration’s controversial drug war had angered the president, stopped airing programs on its free channel Tuesday night, when telecommunications regulators ordered the television and radio network to cease operations because its license had just expired.
On Friday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the Philippine government shared the American government’s view that an “independent media is vital to democratic societies,” as he appeared to try to shield Duterte from the controversy raging around the shutdown of ABS-CBN.
“This stance has never wavered on the part of the president and his administration,” Roque said in a statement. “The Philippines, we assure our foreign friends and allies, continues to have a free and robust press where critics and the political opposition remain vocal in their aversion to the current government.”
Many Filipinos have come to rely on the free channel’s primetime newscast, TV Patrol, as a vital source of information about the government’s fight to contain the coronavirus. The network’s a.m. radio show has also gone silent. But ABS-CBN’s online platforms and subscription-based cable operations are still functioning because they were not covered by the closure order.
Roque was responding to a statement issued late Thursday by the United States, the Philippines’ longtime ally.
“We are concerned by the situation regarding ABS-CBN,” Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said in a statement.
She reiterated a message disseminated earlier in the week to mark World Press Freedom Day.
“An independent media plays a critical role in facilitating the open exchange of information and ideas which is vital to free, prosperous, and secure democratic societies,” Ortagus said.
“An independent media also helps keep our society safe and healthy, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic we currently face,” she added. “This is true for the United States, the Philippines, as well as countries around the world.”
On Thursday, ABS-CBN began airing the TV Patrol program on its cable channel, a costly move that could hurt the broadcaster’s bottom line, network executives said. That same day, the network filed a petition with the Supreme Court for a temporary restraining order against the closure order issued by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).
The commission ordered ABS-CBN to cease operations after its 25-year franchise expired on Monday. Since late 2016, its application for renewal has been pending before Congress, which has the authority to renew broadcasting franchises. Lawmakers, however, have delayed action on bills related to the broadcaster’s permit.
Company executives have said that ABS-CBN met all the requirements for the renewal.
Duterte, in the past, has gone after the network for allegedly being biased by painting a negative picture of his brutal drug war, which has left 6,000 people dead since he took office nearly four years ago.
In a rant against ABS-CBN last December, Duterte said that the network’s franchise would not be renewed.
“If you’re expecting that that would be renewed, I’m sorry,” he said, according to official transcripts of his speeches at the time. “You’re out. I will see to it that you are out.”
This week marked the first time that the ABS-CBN’s main public channel has been off the air since democracy was restored in the Philippines, when a “people power” revolution ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Marcos had shuttered the network when he declared martial law in 1972.
Eugenio Lopez Jr., the network’s late chairman, was jailed during the Marcos regime, but later escaped and made it to the U.S., where he actively campaigned against the dictator. Lopez returned home after Marcos fell from power, and re-established ABS-CBN. The network has since grown into the country’s number one broadcaster, employing about 11,000 people.
Roque, the presidential spokesman, said the granting of a broadcast franchise was the prerogative of the legislature “which like the United States system is separate and independent from the executive branch.”
While the constitution clearly states the three branches of the government are separate, Duterte allies enjoy a super majority in the House of Representatives.
“We therefore ask those who clamor for the continued operations of the network, whose broadcast franchise had lapsed to lobby before their representatives in the august halls of Congress and make their voices be heard,” Roque said.
Duterte “is neutral on the issue,” Roque added.
Congressman: ‘There will be a reckoning’
House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, for his part, said the NTC had assured him in March that it would give ABS-CBN a temporary license so it could continue broadcasting as lawmakers deliberated on renewing its franchise.
“Last Tuesday, we were all ambushed by the NTC, despite their assurance given under oath” the congressman said in an online statement.
He said the NTC appeared to have “succumbed to pressure” from the country’s solicitor general, who on Sunday warned the commission not to grant the network provisional authority to operate.
“While this unnecessarily complicates the issue, it does not change the fact that the exclusive constitutional authority to grant, deny, extend, revoke or modify broadcast franchises … still resides in Congress and Congress alone,” Cayetano said.
He vowed to direct fair and impartial hearings on the ABS-CBN franchise, but gave no specific dates.
“As for the sudden flip-flopping of the NTC and the unconstitutional meddling by the solicitor general in the business of Congress, I promise you, there will be a reckoning,” Cayetano said.
Meanwhile, members of the upper chamber said they would quickly approve a bill extending ABS-CBN’s franchise once it reached the Senate.
“The Filipino people want to see the network back on air,” Sen. Grace Poe said. “To see is to believe.”
She said senators would not waste a moment once the bill made its way to the Senate “as this matter is imbued with public interest.”