Press freedom under Duterte looks grim after ABS-CBN closure

Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: ACE MORANDANTE/PPD / Public domain

The Philippines’ largest media company, ABS-CBN, was pushed off the air recently after the government refused to renew its operating license. The future of press freedom in the country is in serious peril.

By Zachary Frye                                                               

On May 5, 2020, one of oldest and largest news broadcasters in the Philippines, ABS-CBN, was pushed off the air after legislators allowed its 25-year contract to expire.

The shutdown came after the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), a government agency responsible for media operations in the country, issued a cease-and-desist order to ABS-CBN the day after its operating license expired.

In the order, the NCT said that all media outlets need a valid license to continue running. According to Filipino law, only congress has the power to renew media licenses. A renewal for ABS-CBN was introduced as early as 2016, but legislators sat on the bill, citing more important priorities.

Since taking office in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly criticized ABS-CBN for allegedly biased coverage, especially after the outlet started covering a “war on drugs” that some independent observers claim has led to at least 12,000 deaths, sometimes by way of extrajudicial killings.

Duterte also criticized the outlet for allegedly refusing to run some of his political ads during the 2016 campaign. Earlier this year, ABS-CBN’s CEO publicly apologized to Duterte for not running one of his ads. At the time, the network deemed the ad too controversial and argued they were only trying to “abide by regulations that surround the airing of political ads,” the CEO told a senate inquiry panel at hearings over their potential renewal.

In 2019, Duterte explicitly threatened to shut down the outlet. “If you are expecting [a renewal], I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out,” Duterte said during a government ceremony.

After the shutdown, however, a spokesman for the Duterte administration, Harry Roque, claimed the president was neutral on the decision not to renew the license. “He really is neutral and [wants] to let all his allies know that he will not hold it against them. It will not endear him either way. They can vote as they wish [whether to renew or not],” he argued.

During the most recent congressional elections held in April last year, Duterte allies swept the Senate, cementing his administration’s influence over the legislative body.

The shutdown is a fundamental attack on freedom of the press in the Philippines

Speaking with ASEAN Today, Danilo Arao, an associate professor at the Department of Journalism at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, characterized the move as the death of press freedom in the country.

“The chilling effect [of the closure] is clear: If a leading broadcast network can be forcibly shut down through the weaponization of laws, then it can also happen to other news media organizations or even ordinary people,” he argued.

This isn’t the first time a news outlet engaging in critical coverage of Duterte has seen legal trouble. Since January 2018, Rappler, an outlet founded by journalist Maria Ressa, has faced 11 legal cases, including over tax fraud and securities violations.

The most prominent case involves allegations of cyber libel over a report on a businessman’s alleged ties to a judge. Press freedom advocates say the charges are baseless and constitute a thinly veiled attempt to silence the organization.

Moving forward, Arao fears the shutdown of ABS-CBN could lead to further degradation of independent media in the country at a time when regular Filipinos need it most.

“Press freedom is said to be a cornerstone in a democracy,” he said. “With the demise of press freedom, what the Philippines has right now is a severely damaged and contaminated press where there is a likelihood of increased harassment and intimidation, not to mention self-censorship and pro-government gatekeeping.”

Some lawmakers are pushing back against the order

In light of the shutdown, there has been some pushback from lawmakers. On May 5, The House Committee on Legislative Franchises formally requested an explanation from the NTC on why they immediately issued the cease-and-desist order against ABS-CBN.

In its request, the committee characterized the move as “undue interference on and disobedience to the exercise of the power of the House of Representatives” and said that the order was “an affront to [the legislature’s] dignity and an inexcusable disrespect of its authority.”

For its part, the NTC says it was only following the rules as laid down by the law, stating that no media operation can continue without approval from congress.

On May 11, 12 senators signed a resolution requesting that the NTC revoke the order, suggesting that the outlet is needed “now more than ever” as a source of news amid the COVID-19 crisis and a “looming recession.”

Alan Peter Cayetano. Photo: flickr by U.S. Department of State shared as a Public Domain United States Government Work (PD)

The next day, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, a Duterte ally, acknowledged pressure to fast track bills on ABS-CBN’s renewal, but warned that an expedited hearing would not necessarily lead to automatic approval.

According to Cayetanyo, “serious concerns that have been raised can no longer be swept under the rug” regarding the network. In a Facebook post on the matter, he was unspecific on what those concerns might be.

The future looks bleak for advocates of fair coverage in the country

In the Philippines, presidents are only allowed to serve one six-year term, meaning there is currently no legal opportunity for a president to run for reelection. Duterte’s term is set to finish on June 30, 2022.

With Duterte in office for just over two more years, some press freedom advocates hope that the situation will improve after he leaves. Others, however, warn that it is unlikely he will go quietly, even if power is handed over smoothly.

According to Sheila Coronel, co-founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and director of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Duterte is already laying the groundwork to cement his legacy, consolidate his base and even handpick a successor.

Some commentators argue that he might push for his daughter, Sara Duterte, to run for the office once his term ends. Sara Duterte is currently the mayor of Davao City, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, a post previously held by her father from 2013 to 2016.

While the future is uncertain, press freedom will continue to falter in the Philippines barring a major change in attitude from its leaders. For Professor Arao, however, there seems little chance of that happening in the short term.

“We now have a militarized bureaucracy with the entry of former military officials in what should be civilian-led government agencies,” he lamented. “We might end up with a militarized way of life as increased police and military presence seems to be part of what the government is pushing as the ‘new normal.’ That Duterte is pictured as a strongman, or even a tyrant, in the international community is understandable because that is who he is.”

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.