HomeCommentaryDouble-barrelled attack on Philippines' press freedom

Double-barrelled attack on Philippines’ press freedom

It’s becoming clear as day that the administration of Rodrigo Duterte is hellbent on closing down the media conglomerate ABS-CBN, which has been critical of the government’s bloody “war on drugs.”

On Feb. 10, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a petition before the Supreme Court demanding that the media outfit’s franchise, which is due to expire on March 30, be forfeited over alleged “abusive practices.”

This comes even as the House of Representatives appears to be dragging its feet on tackling a number of bills urging the extension of the ABS-CBN franchise for another 25 years. 

The House will adjourn by March 11 and won’t reconvene until May. That leaves less than a month for the house committee handling the issue to discuss what to do with the pending bills. 

The chairman of the House Committee on Legislative Franchises doesn’t seem eager to do so at all, fueling suspicion that there is a deliberate conspiracy to ignore the clamor for the extension of the ABS-CBN franchise and simply allow it to lapse by the end of March.

This, as I see it, is a double-barreled attack on press freedom that should be condemned in the strongest terms by those who still believe that Philippine democracy should be defended at all costs.

Last I checked, the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. Unless, of course, the palace is now using the fundamental law of the land as its doormat.

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Malacañang, the presidential palace, denies any hand in the “quo warranto” petition of the solicitor general and the obvious indifference of congress to pleas for the extension of the ABS-CBN franchise.

However, President Duterte has been railing against the media outfit for years. The president has, among other things, accused it of swindling him by not running his political ads during the 2016 campaign season, even if these had been paid for. He’s further accused the outfit of bias in its reporting on the government’s bloody war on drugs, reflecting a vindictiveness unbecoming of his high office, and an authoritarian bent inimical to our cherished democratic ideals.

The claim that all this has nothing to do with press freedom rings hollow as presidential pronouncements and the actions of those in power show a predisposition to bring independent-minded media to heel.

The shutdown of ABS-CBN, if it comes to pass, will be a reprise of what Ferdinand Marcos did in 1972 when he declared martial law. This time, the shutdown will come not through martial law, but the weaponization of the law to silence critics of the administration.

Activist join a demonstration in Manila on Feb. 10 to show support for ABS-CBN, a television network that the Philippine government threatens to close. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)

The shutdown of the media outfit would displace no less than 11,000 employees, forcing them to find new ways to make ends meet.

Media members and those who cherish our democratic rights to free speech and expression should therefore unite and fight this brazen attempt to curtail press freedom.

If we do not speak up now, what will prevent this government from shutting down other media outfits that have taken a strong stand against extrajudicial killings and unabated corruption in high places?

It’s not only ABS-CBN that’s now in the crosshairs of the Duterte administration.

The online news outfit Rappler has also been slapped with libel cases and is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for alleged violations of the constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership of media.

Rappler denies any wrongdoing. 

The government’s frenzied attempts to curtail press freedom since 2016 have not escaped the attention of the Catholic Church and media groups.

On World Press Freedom Day in May 2019, Bishop Gerardo Alminaza, of the Diocese of San Carlos, joined calls for greater press freedom in the country, while speaking out against efforts to suppress it.

“Promoting the truth is promoting life. We join the call of respecting press freedom, respecting the truth, and respecting human life,” Bishop Alminaza said.

For its part, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines lamented that press freedom is currently “under siege”, and that “no matter how despots strive to stifle freedom of expression and thought, the media, the truth, the people, will outlive them.”

Foreign correspondents based in Manila also urged their fellow journalists to “close ranks” amid efforts to muzzle the media.

“When we lose our freedom to report the truth, everyone loses. We lose our dignity. We lose our soul,” the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said.

I fully agree with their sentiments, and hope that the government will back down and uphold press freedom as a bulwark of our democratic system. 

Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.

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