Leading Philippine broadcaster ABS-CBN ordered to close

The Philippines’ telecoms agency on Tuesday ordered the closure of ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest broadcaster, in a move described by campaigners as an attack on the free press at a time when the nation needed impartial reporting to battle the coronavirus outbreak. 

The National Telecommunications Commission issued an immediate “cease and desist” order against the channel that has long been targeted by President Rodrigo Duterte, who had called for the station to be shut down.

The station’s 25-year broadcasting franchise expired on May 4, but the Philippine Congress had asked for the station to continue operating provisionally while it debated whether to renew it.

ABS-CBN said it would go off the air in compliance with the NTC’s order and stopped broadcasting after its evening prime time newscast. 

“Millions of Filipinos will lose their source of news and entertainment when ABS-CBN is ordered to go off-air on TV and radio tonight . . . when people need crucial and timely information as the nation deals with the Covid-19 pandemic,” the station said in a statement. 

Jose Calida, the solicitor-general, in February accused ABS-CBN of “highly abusive practices” and called for it to be stripped of its licence, which came up for renewal at the end of March. 

The threat of closure hanging over the station has been seen as an attack both on independent media and the country’s powerful family business owners, whom Mr Duterte has branded “oligarchs”

Many of the Philippines’ business-owning families are perceived as supporters of the liberal political camp allied with the late president Corazon Aquino. Mr Duterte has swept the group to the political margins since becoming president.

ABS-CBN, which is controlled by the Lopez family, broadcasts the country’s most popular Tagalog-language newscast. Since Mr Duterte took power in 2016, the station has carried critical reports on his violent anti-drugs crackdown.

Separately, Philippine authorities have launched multiple legal cases against journalists at the website Rappler.

Reporters Without Borders ranked the Philippines in 136th place out of 180 countries worldwide in its recently published 2020 World Press Freedom Index, saying ABS-CBN had been “the target of threats and intimidation by government agencies and institutions that support Duterte”. 

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday urged the NTC to rescind the order against the broadcaster. “This also comes at the worst possible time, when the Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging countries like the Philippines and when accurate and truthful information is needed crucially,” the group said. 

The Philippines has been among south-east Asian countries hardest hit by the health crisis, with 9,684 cases and 637 deaths confirmed to date. 

The move to close ABS-CBN comes at the same time that Mr Duterte was showing signs of reconciling with two other companies with whom he had feuded.

In a speech on Monday evening, the president apologised to the Ayala family, controlling shareholders of the country’s largest conglomerate, and Manuel Pangilinan, chief executive of First Pacific Group, for “hurting words”. Mr Duterte had in recent months threatened the executives in relation to a dispute over water contracts in Manila, causing their share prices to sink. 

Additional reporting by Guill Ramos in Manila