TV screens will remain dark and radio sets silent as a result of this morning’s decision by the House Committee on Legislative Franchises to drive the final nails into the ABS-CBN network’s coffin. Last May, the Philippine congress refused to renew the network’s 25-year franchise when it expired. Today the committee voted overwhelmingly, by 70 votes to 11, not to give it a new one.
Between the two decisions, ABS-CBN’s representatives argued their cause in a series of 13 hearings lasting a total of around 100 hours. But the committee’s members, most of whom support President Rodrigo Duterte, responded with a range of accusations against the network’s management, including tax evasion and violation of the law on foreign investment in the media.
Above all, they implied that any decision to give ABS-CBN’s TV channels and radio stations a new franchise would be conditioned on a change in editorial policy and on coverage favourable to the Duterte administration’s nationalist and populist policies. The network refused.
This means that ABS-CBN has little chance of getting a new franchise before the end of the current legislature in 2022 – a legislature in which the overwhelming majority behaves likes a rump parliament blindly following the executive.
“The parliamentarians who rejected this request for a new franchise will go down in history as legislators who preferred to support the ruling caste’s personal interests instead of defending the spirit of the 1987 constitution,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“This vote is like a thunderbolt in the Philippine media landscape’s already troubled sky. It should be noted that, in a sign of how the independent media are persecuted, many of the spurious arguments used by parliamentarians hostile to ABS-CBN were identical to those that government agencies have been using against the Rappler news website.”
Rappler and its CEO, Maria Ressa, are also charged with tax evasion and violating the law on foreign investment in the media although even the quickest analysis shows that the cases against them are riddled with legal inconsistencies.
Compounding all the previous judicial harassment, Ressa and a former Rappler reporter, Reynaldo Santos Jr, were convicted last month on a Kafkaesque cyber-libel charge carrying a sentence of up to six years in prison.
In response to these repeated attacks on the fourth estate by the Duterte clique, which has managed to corrupt both legislature and judiciary, RSF yesterday launched an international “HoldTheLine” campaign in support of independent media that are trying to hold out in the Philippines.
An online petition demands the withdrawal of all the spurious charges against Maria Ressa, Rappler and its journalists.
The Philippines is ranked 136th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, two places lower than in 2019.