Philippine lawmakers on Friday voted against the renewal of a 25-year franchise for top broadcaster ABS-CBN Corp, ensuring a media conglomerate that has clashed with the country’s president stays off the air indefinitely.
A legislative committee overwhelmingly supported a house working group’s assessment that ABS-CBN was “undeserving of the grant of legislative franchise,” a decision likely to anger activists who say media freedom has come under sustained attack under the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte.
ABS-CBN has been on tenderhooks since Duterte took office in 2016, with the president repeatedly threatening to thwart its renewal bid, his anger stemming from its failure to air some of his paid election campaign commercials. It has since apologized.
Though Duterte enjoys a supermajority in the lower house, his legal advisor Salvador Panelo said the president had no involvement in the decision and “doesn’t intrude on the affairs of an equal branch.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia head of Human Rights Watch called it a “grievous assault on press freedom” not seen since the days of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“This move solidifies the tyranny of President Rodrigo Duterte,” he said.
A caravan of cars carrying ABS-CBN employees and celebrities holding placards saying “VoteYestoABSCBN,” “Defend and Press Freedom” circled the house on Friday.
Lawyers and rights groups accuse the president’s allies of persecuting ABS-CBN, at a time when legal cases mount against Rappler, a news website whose reporting has also riled Duterte.
The move against the broadcaster comes as concerns grows about human rights and media freedom under Duterte in a country with a reputation for being 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 controversial anti-terror law that critics say could be used to target Duterte’s opponents.
ABS-CBN, which says its 21 radio and 38 television stations reach 70 per cent of the country’s 107 million people, can appeal the decision, but minority lawmaker Edcel Lagman said that would likely fail because “there was pressure from leadership.