Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called on Philippine parliamentarians to resist President Rodrigo Duterte’s threats and ensure the survival of ABS-CBN, the country’s leading TV and radio network, by renewing its franchise.
If its 25-year franchise is not renewed, as Parliament last did on 30 March 1995, all of ABS-CBN’s radio and TV stations will stop broadcasting at midnight on March 30, when the franchise is scheduled to expire.
The renewal is in doubt because the parliamentary majority usually heeds the president, and the quick-tempered Duterte has repeatedly insulted and threatened ABS-CBN ever since he became president in 2016, says an RSF statement.
If it is not renewed, it will not be because ABS-CBN did not try well ahead of time, says RSF.
The network filed its renewal request in 2014 and an initial legislative proposal to this effect, House Bill 4349, was submitted to the House of Representatives on 10 November 2016. Since then, eight other bills proposing its renewal have been presented without any coming to a vote.
“As the leading TV and radio network, offering independent, verified news and information free of charge to millions of citizens, ABS-CBN plays an absolutely fundamental democratic role in the Philippines,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“This is why we urge parliamentarians, starting with Franz Alvarez, the chair of the Committee on Legislative Franchises, to resist the pressure from the president’s office and to immediately put the renewal of this franchise on the parliament’s agenda.
“The credibility of Philippine democracy and the balance between the different powers is at stake.”
One of Duterte’s favourite targets, ABS-CBN has often broadcast critical reports on such subjects as his heavy-handed “war on drugs” and the many execution-style killings that have accompanied it.
He threatened to cancel its franchise in May 2016, almost as soon as he was elected. In the months that followed, he accused the network of “publishing trash” (30 March 2017), trying to “swindle” him (27 April 2017) and of being “sons of bitches” (19 May 2017).
He made this, no less veiled threat on 3 December: “If you expect that [the franchise] will be renewed, I’m sorry. I will see to it that you’re out.”
And then, on 30 December, exactly three months before the expiry date, he advised the network’s owners to “just sell”.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has launched an online petition for the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise and a campaign on social media with the hashtag #NoToABSCBNShutdown.
The Philippines is ranked 134th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.