MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines’ largest TV and radio network, which was shut this week by a government regulator, asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to allow it to return to the air amid an uproar over its closure.
ABS-CBN Corp. said in its petition to the court that the Tuesday closure order by the National Telecommunications Commission muzzled freedom of the press and removed a major provider of news and entertainment while millions are under a coronavirus lockdown.
“The public needs the services of ABS-CBN, now more than ever, as the country grapples with the effects of COVID-19,” the broadcaster told the court.
Media watchdogs have accused President Rodrigo Duterte and his government of muzzling independent media like ABS-CBN that have reported critically on issues including his anti-drug crackdown. Duterte has accused the network of favoring a rival candidate in the 2016 election and had threatened to block its franchise approval.
The telecommunications commission ordered ABS-CBN to stop operating because its 25-year congressional franchise ended on Monday. But the move was a reversal of the regulator’s earlier assurance to Congress that it would issue the network a temporary permit to remain on air while legislators assess its franchise renewal.
At least six broadcasters have been allowed in the past to continue operating after their franchises expired and their renewal applications were still pending in the House of Representatives, which has exclusive power to grant and revoke such franchises.
Opposition Sen. Franklin Drilon, a former justice secretary, said the closure order violated the constitution, which guarantees equal protection and treatment under the law, and was a “grave abuse of discretion.”
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra has cited the same constitutional principle and said the network should be able to continue operating while its franchise renewal is pending. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin used an expletive in a tweet to express his disgust with the telecommunications commission.
Alarm over the shutdown has been expressed by a wide range of groups, including business leaders, left-wing activists, journalists and TV celebrities.
A Roman Catholic bishop, Broderick Pabillo, said shuttering ABS-CBN “is very unbecoming at best and traitorous to the people at worst” and was “a brazen exercise of power to show who is in charge, using the law and its technicalities as a tool of control.”
Founded in 1953, the network was last closed down under the rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and reopened after his 1986 overthrow by an army-backed “people power” revolt.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte has a neutral position on ABS-CBN’s closure, but the government’s solicitor-general, Jose Calida, warned telecommunication commissioners they could face criminal charges if they allowed the network to remain in operation without a franchise.
In February, Calida asked the Supreme Court to revoke the operating franchises of ABS-CBN and a subsidiary in a separate attempt to shut down the company for allegedly abusing its franchises and violating a constitutional prohibition on foreign investment in Philippine media. ABS-CBN denied the allegations.