Philippine lawmakers yesterday rejected ABS-CBN’s bid for a fresh franchise, shutting down for good a media giant that, through its vast network and stable of popular journalists, has played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s politics.
The move ended the 66-year-run of a broadcaster that rose to prominence during post-war reconstruction, survived a government takeover under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, regained its position as a dominant force in media after a popular uprising that overthrew the Marcos regime in 1986, and now must again wind down under a president who has chafed at what he saw as the network’s unfair reporting of his reign.
Civil rights activists say the decision is a warning to journalists that political persecution awaits them if they go too far in criticising President Rodrigo Duterte, and his government, allies and family.
“The political persecution of ABS-CBN sends a chilling message to Filipino media practitioners and journalists: toe the line or get shut down,” said Senator Risa Hontiveros, an opposition politician.
Congress’ vote to deny ABS-CBN a franchise follows a guilty verdict in a recent libel case against prominent journalist Maria Ressa, whose online news site Rappler has also been targeted by Mr Duterte, and the passing of a sweeping anti-terror law that critics say will be used to intimidate government critics.
But lawmakers who voted to deny ABS-CBN a new franchise said the issue was never about press freedom.
“If it were so, then all applications for legislative franchises covering mass media could simply claim such freedom and force the hand of (Congress) each time,” they said in a joint report.
Philippine regulators on May 5 shut down ABS-CBN, a day after its 25-year congressional franchise expired. The network closed its network of over 40 TV stations and some 20 radio stations nationwide. It then stepped up efforts to lobby for a new licence.
At least five congressmen allied under a loose coalition supporting Mr Duterte had sought to block the broadcaster’s licence, arguing that ABS-CBN’s majority owner Eugenio Lopez III, a Filipino, also held an American passport.
The network also sold investment papers known as “depository receipts” to companies abroad.
These violated provisions in the Philippine Constitution requiring 100-per cent Filipino ownership of media organisations, they said.
They also accused the network of dodging taxes, summarily firing employees and biased reporting.
But lawmakers defending the broadcaster said justice and securities officials who testified before Congress said Mr Lopez, despite his dual citizenship, was not barred by the Constitution from owning stocks in ABS-CBN, as he remained 100-per cent Filipino.
The depository receipts also did not grant holders shares or control over the network, they added.
Tax officials said ABS-CBN had not been “delinquent”, as it regularly pays its taxes, and does not use its subsidiaries as “tax shields”
It paid some 71.5 billion pesos (S$2 billion) in taxes from 2003 to 2019, making it among the country’s top taxpayers, they disclosed.
Labour officials said there were cases lodged against ABS-CBN, but most were already being mediated.
ABS-CBN has said it would have to lay off some 11,000 staff and other personnel and contractors.
The news website Politiko.com has reported that the influential Iglesia ni Cristo (Christ’s Church), a 3-million strong religious group that positions itself as a rival to the Catholic Church, is keen on securing ABS-CBN’s frequency.
ABS-CBN is known for its prime time flagship news programme, TV Patrol, as well as soaps and variety TV shows. Its offerings also include coverage of popular sports such as basketball and boxing. Its programmes were beamed to nine out of every 10 homes.
Mr Duterte has been threatening to shut down ABS-CBN since he took office in 2016.