MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine government on Tuesday ordered the country’s largest broadcasting network to halt operations, a blow to press freedom and the flow of information in the middle of a pandemic.
Media giant ABS-CBN signed off after its evening news broadcast, leaving the screens of millions of viewers black and the jobs of 11,000 employees in jeopardy.
A cease-and-desist order was issued by the National Telecommunications Commission earlier Tuesday, affecting television and radio operations. ABS-CBN’s cable news channel and digital operations will continue, albeit with a limited reach.
President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly threatened to close down the network in the past. His office denied that he had a hand in the order, saying the decision was entirely up to the commission.
“ABS-CBN is free to exhaust all legal remedies available to it,” said presidential spokesperson Harry Roque. Duterte “accepted the apology of the network and left its fate to both houses of Congress,” he added.
Duterte and his allies have accused ABS-CBN of not carrying his advertisements during the 2016 election campaign, instead airing those of his opponents. The network’s president, Carlo Katigbak, apologized to Duterte in February, clarifying the operations surrounding how the advertisements were aired.
The apology came amid congressional hearings on the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise, which lapsed on Monday.
Before the cease-and-desist order was issued, the office of the solicitor general – the executive department’s top lawyer – warned the commission against allowing the network to operate temporarily.
Observers and government critics called the move a clampdown on dissent and said it was meant to single out the network. It is common practice for the commission to allow media organizations to continue operating even after government permissions have lapsed.
“It sends a clear message: What Duterte wants, Duterte gets,” the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said in a statement. “And it is clear, with this brazen move to shut down ABS-CBN, that he intends to silence the critical media and intimidate everyone else into submission.”
Lawmakers, including those aligned with the president, expressed reservations and criticized the order. The Senate and the House of Representatives produced a resolution and letter respectively, expressing their views that ABS-CBN should be allowed to operate while the franchise renewal was pending in Congress. The Justice Department had also released a legal opinion saying that the network could still broadcast.
Bills to renew the franchise were pending for months, and the commission previously assured Congress it would give the network provisional authority to operate.
An independent senator, Sonny Angara, said the order would shut off an important information source that is “practically in the household of every Filipino,” and in the middle of a pandemic.
“Where are they going to get their news now?” he said in an interview with ABS-CBN. “On the Internet, where there [is] fake news?”
Disinformation plagues the Web in the social media savvy Philippines; last month, Twitter took down hundreds of suspicious accounts using pro-government hashtags – among them, #YesToABSCBNShutdown. On Tuesday night, #NoToABSCBNShutdown, #IStandWithABSCBN and #DefendPressFreedom were the top Twitter trends.
In an interview with ABS-CBN’s radio station DZMM, Edgardo Cabarios, deputy commissioner of the National Telecommunications Commission, said that only a court’s temporary restraining order could allow the network to resume operations.
The Philippines, once considered to have the freest press in Asia, has consistently been ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. This month, it slipped two spots down to 136th place in the World Press Freedom Index.
The populist Duterte, who is most known for a bloody drug war that has left thousands dead, has expressed disdain for critical media in the past. The government has also leveled various charges – including allegations of cyber-libel and tax evasion – against the news site Rappler and its CEO, Maria Ressa.
While ABS-CBN carried on with live coverage of its own impending closure, a number of reporters and anchors took to Twitter to say that their work continues. “In the service of the Filipino,” they wrote, echoing the network’s tagline, “we remain.”
ABS-CBN has been on the front lines of the covid-19 pandemic, covering issues from the state of Filipino health-care workers to hunger under quarantine. It said in a statement that it has also provided relief goods worth almost $6 million to 600,000 families under lockdown. The commission’s order will also affect the network’s entertainment division, as it manages celebrities and airs soap operas apart from delivering news programs.
The network last went off the air in 1972, when then-President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and its owners were forced out. It reopened in 1986 after Marcos was ousted by the “people power” revolution.
“We will be back, just as we survived martial law,” ABS-CBN justice reporter Mike Navallo said on Twitter. “Let history and the Filipino people judge this moment.”