The Philippine government filed a legal motion to revoke ABS-CBN’s franchise. The move is part of Duterte’s wider strategy to drown out the free press and control public discourse.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has made no attempt to hide his disdain for the nation’s largest television network, ABS-CBN, since his election in 2016. The President has repeatedly chastised the network, accusing it of swindling his campaign out of money and breaking Philippine laws on foreign media ownership.
On Monday, Rodrigo Duterte filed a legal motion to the Supreme Court through the Solicitor General to revoke ABS-CBN’s franchise. In the filing, Solicitor General Jose Calida accused the network of “highly abusive practices” and allowing foreign entities to invest in the company by “hiding behind an elaborately crafted corporate veil.”
The move is a clear attempt by Duterte to stifle critics and control the spread of information. He is bringing the full weight of the state against one of the few remaining independent media outlets in the Philippines to drown out his critics and fill the void with the voices of his proponents.
Duterte has weaponised the judiciary to silence critics
Since Duterte came to office in 2016, he has embarked on a campaign to control the spread of information in the Philippines. In 2017, the Philippines recorded the most journalist deaths in the Asia-Pacific.
The judiciary has played a central role in Duterte’s strategy of oppression. He pressured and intimidated the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer following the newspaper’s coverage of Duterte’s hidden wealth in 2016. The Inquirer—the country’s largest print newspaper—was sold to Ramon Ang, an ally of Duterte’s, under the threat of legal proceedings in 2017.
Those that have resisted calls to close or limit unfavourable coverage have seen legal cases brought against them. In 2019, agents from the Philippines National Bureau of Investigations arrested Maria Ressa, the CEO and founder of Philippine news site Rappler, in her own newsroom over a libel case, her sixth arrest.
Other political opponents that have criticised Duterte’s drug war or accused his family of corruption have seen the judiciary weaponized against them. Senator Leila de Lima and Senator Antonio Trillanes were both arrested on charges Human Rights organisations have denounced as “pure fiction”.
The constitutional article designed to protect the press is being used against ABS-CBN
The grounds for revoking ABS-CBN’s franchise are equally bogus. As he did with Rappler in 2018, Duterte has accused ABS-CBN of violating the country’s foreign investment laws.
Under the constitution, media outlets are limited to Filipino ownership. The original intent was to protect the Philippine media market from foreign influence but under Duterte, the protective article has been deployed as a club to beat media outlets that criticise the president and his policies.
In a statement, ABS-CBN said the accusations are “without merit”. The organisation said: “ABS-CBN complies with all pertinent laws governing its franchise and has secured all necessary government and regulatory approvals for its business operations.”
At the heart of the accusations are the company’s Philippine Deposit Receipts (PDRs). These are investment tools that are pegged to a companies’ share price and are available to foreign investors but do not grant investors ownership. The country’s Securities and Exchange Commission and the Philippine Stock Exchange approved the firm’s PDRs.
Duterte also claims that ABS-CBN took his money then refused to run his political advertisements in 2016. ABS-CBN denies the allegation.
Duterte is writing the handbook on media oppression in the digital age
ABS-CBN has come under assault from pollical despots in the past. The Lopez family that owns the network resisted the Marcos dictatorship. As a result, the network was shut in 1972 under the declaration of martial law. In one instant, through the declaration of martial law, Marcos was able to seize control of the country’s mouthpieces and limit the availability of information to the public.
However, with the rise of social media and online news, Duterte confronts a very different press landscape. Shutting print and television outlets, the twin pillars of the media would be insufficient to control the public narrative. To control the conversation, he must control both traditional media outlets and the digital space.
Duterte’s legal efforts must be viewed within the context of the modern media environment. His legal efforts to close ABS-CBN and Rappler are just one part of a two-pronged approach to control information dissemination.
Alongside the legal assault of the country’s free press, Duterte has recruited an army of trolls and supporters online who deliberately spread misinformation across social media platforms. Duterte’s own Presidential Communications Operations Office has faced accusations of spreading misinformation.
While one arm gags the media through legal proceedings, the other amplifies favourable voices. As the encirclement of the free press tightens, Duterte intends to reduce the media’s voice to whisper, barely audible over the pro-Duterte online chatter.
The press has few allies among Philippine institutions
As ABS-CBN faces its greatest threat in decades, it will find little protection from the vindictive president from the nation’s institutions.
The bills requesting the franchise renewal are currently pending approval within the House of Representatives. However, with the house stacked with Duterte allies, the bills could be held up or rejected.
Time is not on ABS-CBN’s time. The franchise secured in 1995 expires on March 30, 2020, but Congress will adjourn on March 11. This leaves just one month for the House to pass the necessary bills.
Even if the House passes the bills, the filing in the Supreme Court could see the franchise terminated. The Supreme Court has also demonstrated a willingness to side with Duterte on sensitive political matters in the past. The court upheld Duterte’s inflammatory decision to bury Marcos in the Heroes Cemetery. It also upheld his decision to declare martial law in Mindanao.
The recent verdict in the Maguindanao Massacre case where some 197 gunmen killed 32 journalists in 2009 also indicated that the Filipino press may not find the judiciary sympathetic to their plight. Of the 197 gunmen, around 40 received prison sentences. More than 50 of the accused were acquitted and the rest were never brought to trial.
There is no independent media regulatory body in the Philippines. The government and the courts have the exclusive right to grant franchises and set the legal conditions for the establishment of a media outlet.
In an increasingly fraught media environment, civil society, international NGOs, academics and members of the political opposition occupy the last line of defence for the free press. Journalists and editors’ courage and resilience in the face of legal threats and thinly veiled political attacks have maintained unwavering voices in the information maelstrom but they are at major risk of being drowned out.