House nears vote on fate of ABS-CBN that clashed with Duterte

July 10, 2020 - 11:33 AM
ABS-CBN supporters hold protest placards as Philippine congress finalizes decision on the broadcast network's franchise renewal, outside the ABS-CBN headquarters in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, July 9, 2020. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)

MANILA — Philippine lawmakers concluded a hearing on Thursday on the license renewal of top broadcaster ABS-CBN, paving the way for a critical vote on whether a major media group that angered President Rodrigo Duterte should be allowed back on air.

The telecom regulator ordered ABS-CBN and its 21 radio and 38 television stations to cease operations on May 5, after the lower house failed to conclude hearings on renewing its 25-year license before it expired.

ABS-CBN’s fate rests with one committee that must decide on a franchise renewal that Duterte has threatened to block during repeated public outbursts at ABS, which stemmed from its failure to air one of his paid 2016 election commercials. ABS-CBN has since apologized.

House speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, who was Duterte’s running mate, said the committee could now make a “legally and morally sound decision” after 12 hearings.

Cayetano said, however, that ABS-CBN had used public airwaves to further its agenda, like promoting its preferred election candidates. The network says its reporting is “accurate, fair and balanced.”

He stressed the issue was not about media freedom, hitting back at critics who accuse the president’s allies of punishing ABS-CBN, at a time when legal cases mount against another news organisation, Rappler, whose gritty reporting has riled Duterte.

The vote is expected as early as Friday and will be closely watched as concern grows about human rights and media freedom under Duterte in one of Asia’s most liberal democracies.

It follows a guilty verdict in a recent libel case against Rappler chief Maria Ressa, and the passing of a sweeping anti-terror law that critics say will be used to target Duterte’s opponents.

Dozens of activists gathered outside Congress in support of the 66-year-old broadcaster and its 11,000 staff, many holding placards saying “VoteYestoABSCBN”, “Defend Press Freedom” and “Fight For Freedom and Democracy”.

Many Filipinos depend on free TV and radio for news and entertainment and ABS-CBN says it reaches 70% of the 107 million population.

Congressman Mark Go said a franchise must be “swiftly granted” because ABS-CBN was a vital public service during a health crisis, while representative Rodrigo Abellanosa said failure to do that would be “tantamount to curtailment of the freedom of expression”. —Reporting by Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty