The Philippines’ leading television network went off the air Tuesday, following an order from telecoms regulators for the media giant to cease operations after its license expired the previous day, in a move described by critics as a blow to press freedom.
ABS-CBN, which has angered President Rodrigo Duterte because of its unrelenting reporting of his administration’s much-maligned drug war, signed off before 8 p.m. after broadcasting its popular primetime newscast, TV Patrol.
“We’ve done all the requirements needed for the renewal of our license and we did not violate any law,” Carlo Katigbak, ABS-CBN’s president and CEO, said in a short televised speech before the television and radio network shut down its broadcasts.
The franchise for ABS-CBN officially lapsed on Monday after Congress, the branch of government with the authority to grant it a new one, delayed action for more than three years on an application to renew the network’s license.
The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) said it issued a cease and desist order on Tuesday against ABS-CBN.
“The NTC directed ABS-CBN to stop operating its various TV and radio broadcasting stations nationwide ‘absent a valid Congressional Franchise as required by law,’” the commission said in a statement.
The network was also given 10 days “to respond as to why the frequencies assigned to it should not be recalled,” the NTC added.
The shutdown order came two days after Solicitor General Jose Calida warned the commission against granting ABS-CBN a temporary permit to operate beyond May 4, when its 25-year franchise ended.
Calida petitioned the Supreme Court in February to rule against issuing the new franchise for ABS-CBN and its subsidiary, ABS-CBN Convergence. He accused the network of abusing the terms of its original license by operating a pay-per-view channel illegally.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the network was “free to exhaust all legal remedies available to it.”
“But in the absence of a legislative franchise, as we have earlier said, ABS-CBN’s continued operation is entirely with the NTC’s decision,” Roque said in a statement Tuesday.
The Philippine Constitution requires a franchise from Congress before a broadcast firm can operate, and without one, it “can no longer continue its operations as a public utility,” Calida said on Sunday.
Before going off the air, ABS-CBN issued a statement saying it would stop operations Tuesday evening to comply with the NTC order, as it also urged legislators in the lower house of parliament to renew its franchise.
“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 statement said.
While the shutdown of the Philippine broadcasting giant was criticized by rights and press groups here and abroad, ABS-CBN said it had no choice but to follow the law.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said ABS-CBN’s closure was a “big blow to press freedom” in the Philippines, where at least 6,000 people have died in Duterte’s anti-narcotics crackdown.
“Human Rights Watch views this turn of events with deep concern, coming as it did on the heels of efforts by the Duterte administration to intimidate and muzzle the Philippine press,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.
“The NTC should rescind this order. The Solicitor General should stop attacking like Duterte’s attack dog,” Robertson said, as he urged Congress, which is dominated by Duterte’s supporters, to assert its authority.
“The Filipino people should reject this despotic move to harass and silence a media organization known not only for its reach but also for its competence and dedication to deliver the news,” he said.
The ABS-CBN franchise was issued in 1995. In November 2016, Congresswoman Micaela Violago filed an application for a fresh 25-year-franchise for the network, according to an ABS-CBN timeline.
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP), which groups journalists working for foreign media agencies, and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) condemned the decision to shut down the TV network and accused Duterte of trampling on press freedom.
“The order threatens press freedom at a time when the public needs an unfettered press the most,” FOCAP said. “The move is clearly a case of political harassment against a pillar of Philippine democracy that employs thousands of Filipinos whose livelihoods are now at risk with the order.”
The network has more than 11,000 employees, ABS-CBN officials said.
NUJP, meanwhile, branded the NTC order as a “dastardly move” and a personal vendetta of Duterte.
“It sends a clear message: What Duterte wants, Duterte gets,” it said, adding that it was designed to shut down the “critical media” and force everyone into submission.