The country’s Catholic bishops have called on the government to immediately resolve issues surrounding the renewal of the broadcast franchise of Philippine television giant ABS-CBN.
In a statement, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, expressed hope that the television network “may be allowed to resume its broadcast the soonest to the benefit of our people.”
The prelate, a friend of President Rodrigo Duterte, said Filipinos have lost a major source of information “in these extremely difficult and trying times because of the coronavirus pandemic.”
“These days our people truly need more than ever broadcast services that would bring them the much-needed information in this time of crisis,” said the archbishop.
“I sincerely hope and pray that our government, especially our Congress, will work together to resolve the issue,” said Valles.
The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued a “cease and desist order” on May 5 against ABS-CBN, shutting down the broadcast of all its 70 television and radio stations across the country.
The law granting a 25-year franchise to ABS-CBN was signed on March 30, 1995, but only took effect on April 19, 1995. The network’s 25-year congressional franchise expired on May 4.
ABS-CBN applied for a fresh franchise since 2014, but members of Congress did not act on 11 pending bills granting the network a new 25-year legislative franchise.
Support for workers
The social action arm of the bishops’ conference, meanwhile, expressed support for ABS-CBN’s workers who would lose their job if the network decides to close.
“We know that this is the most inopportune time for this to happen when people are already in crisis and are suffering,” said Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo of Kidapawan, chairman of Caritas Philippines.
Several labor groups have launched a campaign this week calling on the government to save the jobs of some 11,000 workers affected by the ABS-CBN shutdown.
The groups said the “cease and desist order” issued by authorities on the broadcast network “renders more than 11,000 workers jobless, and their families in limbo at a time when we are reeling from the COVID-19 crisis.”
“The continuous operations of the ABS-CBN is not only good for press freedom and freedom of expression – one of the hallmarks of a democratic society – but also good for workers and their families,” read the petition.
Not a press freedom issue
Government spokesman Martin Andanar said the order to stop ABS-CBN’s operations is not an issue of press freedom.
In a statement, Andanar, head of the Presidential Communications Operations Office, decried claims that President Duterte had induced the NTC to issue a cease and desist order against ABS-CBN.
“This is not an issue of press freedom but an issue regarding legislative franchise,” said Andanar.
“Democracy, and the free press and free speech that come with it, is very much alive in the country and effectively protected,” he said.
Andanar said claims that President Duterte was behind ABS-CBN’s shutdown are “bereft of truth and just a rehash of an old malicious imputation to bedevil the president and his administration.”
“One should understand, first and foremost, the Philippines’ legislative processes and rule of law before connecting any precedents as being orchestrated by the president,” he said.
Andanar branded as “false narrative” that President Duterte’s previous displeasure against ABS-CBN was a factor in the decision of NTC.
Andanar said the agency ordered a stop to the network’s broadcast operations because it is bound by law to decide on and execute policies “in accordance with what our Constitution dictates.”
“No one is above the law,” said Andanar, adding that the shutdown of ABS-CBN was brought about by the expiration of its 25-year legislative franchise.
He said the network’s bid to renew its franchise now lies in the hands of Congress.
“The mandate of a broadcast franchise issuance and renewal is within the authority of the Congress, and not solely of the president, who only signs the law to be executory,” said Andanar.