The Philippines' House of Representatives on Friday formally rejected the franchise application of the country’s largest news network, ABS-CBN, effectively finalizing a shutdown that started in May.
ABS-CBN stopped airing on free TV on May 5 after receiving a cease and desist order from the Philippines’ National Telecommunications Commission. But the coordinated push to shut the network down dates all the way back to 2017, when President Rodrigo Duterte started publicly airing his grievances with the outlet.
While some of ABS-CBN’s entertainment and news shows still appear on cable channels, it had to stop broadcasting across its 80 stations on free TV and AM and FM radio.
In the Philippines, media companies are required to apply for a franchise that is granted by Congress through legislation, with ABS-CBN’s last 25-year franchise expiring earlier this year.
The House committee on legislative franchises had been tackling ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal since May 26. After 12 hearings that consisted of officials accusing the network of irresponsible reporting, former talents alleging unfair labor practices, and lawmakers questioning the Philippine citizenship of ABS-CBN owner Gabby Lopez, 70 representatives voted to reject the network’s application. Only 11 voted to grant the franchise, while three did not cast votes.
The network’s closure has been widely seen as yet another blow to press freedom in the country, particularly given Duterte’s repeated public statements that he had a personal grudge against the network and wanted to see it closed.
“Not since the dictator Ferdinand Marcos shut down ABS-CBN and other media outlets in 1972 has a single government act caused so much damage to media freedom,” Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
“This move solidifies the tyranny of President Rodrigo Duterte who accused ABS-CBN of slights against him and politically targeted it for refusing to toe the government’s line and criticizing his so-called ‘war on drugs.’”
Duterte’s main gripe against ABS-CBN was its failure to air some of his paid campaign ads during the 2016 elections, an issue he has talked about since 2017. ABS-CBN President and CEO Carlo Katigbak admitted as much during a congressional hearing on Monday, but maintained, as the network has in the past, that the failure was the result of scheduling conflicts and also affected other candidates, including Duterte’s main rivals.
“We are deeply hurt that the Committee on Legislative Franchises has denied the franchise application of ABS-CBN,” Katigbak said in a statement after the House announced its decision Friday. “We believe that we have been rendering service that is meaningful and valuable to the Filipino public. Nevertheless, we would like to thank the Committee for allowing us a chance to air our side on all the issues raised against us.”
The coordinated putsch against renewing ABS-CBN’s franchise began to take shape last November, when Duterte again began airing his grievances against the network, stating bluntly: “I will not let [the license renewal] pass… You know why? Because you are thieves.”
The drumbeat was picked up by one of Duterte’s closest allies, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, who accused the network of “manipulation, disinformation, and deception,” even while insisting that Congress would fairly adjudicate its application. Cayetano had also previously acknowledged having “personal objections” to ABS-CBN’s continued operations, and repeatedly stalled hearings on its franchise.
Solicitor General Jose Calida also piled on in February, filing a petition with the Supreme Court demanding the network’s franchise be revoked.
Duterte continues to enjoy the support of the majority of the House, paving the way for Friday’s final decision. In fact, at least two lawmakers who were initially for the franchise renewal withdrew their support at the last minute.
Cayetano, who was also Duterte’s running mate in 2016, again insisted on Thursday that the matter was not an issue of press freedom, but of “big business” influencing the media. After today’s vote, he urged government critics to read Congress’ findings “carefully” to understand the decision.
Many Filipinos, however, have voiced their displeasure at the franchise rejection, with #NOtoABSCBNFranchiseDenial the top trending topic on Philippine Twitter as of press time.
House legislative franchises panel chair and Palawan 1st District Representative Franz Alvarez said that ABS-CBN has 24 hours to appeal Congress’ decision through a motion for reconsideration.