Shutdown of Philippines TV network 'an assault on press freedom,' says editor
President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly said he wanted the network to lose its licence
The largest media network in the Philippines stopped broadcasting television on Tuesday in compliance with a state order that an executive editor at the network says was politically motivated.
The country's National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) ordered ABS-CBN, which employs about 11,000 people, to stop its operations on May 4, after its 25-year licence expired.
Congressional hearings to renew the licence were pending but had been delayed, ostensibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
ABS-CBN Corp. issued a statement saying it had received assurances from NTC officials it would have been allowed to continue operations while its application for renewal remained pending in Congress. But when the licence expired on Monday, the network was told to close.
ABS-CBN journalist Ces Oreña-Drilon called it "an assault on press freedom."
"It's a political reprisal for perceived wrongdoing by the president and his allies in the House of Congress," Oreña-Drilon, executive director of the style program ANCX, told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"We didn't think this would happen in a democracy."
While the Filipino government maintains this is a legal and procedural matter, press freedom groups and advocates say it is one more link in a chain of attacks on journalism in the Philippines by President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies.
Duterte has attacked news organizations for critical coverage and has tried to force the closure of Rappler, an independent news organization, accusing it of violating foreign ownership rules.
In a move in February that sparked protests and was condemned by Human Rights Watch, the country's solicitor general petitioned the Supreme Court to revoke ABS-CBN's licence, saying it violated its conditions by allowing foreigners to invest in the company.
Oreña-Drilon notes Duterte has repeatedly said he did not want ABS-CBN's licence renewed.
In a December speech, the president told the network: "If you expect that [the franchise] will be renewed, I'm sorry. I will see to it that you're out," Rappler reports.
Oreña-Drilon said Duterte disliked the network journalists' reporting on his violent war on drugs and was upset when the ABS-CBN aired a rival's political ads and not his, due to what she called an accounting error.
"You can just imagine how difficult it was to report if you work for ABS-CBN, for our network, when various threats of closure [are] hanging over your head," she said, adding that Duterte has successfully sown fear in journalists.
Despite the public animosity, Oreña-Drilon said she and her colleagues did not see the closure coming.
"There were tears shed in the newsroom. We're operating in the middle of a pandemic. We're covering the news at great risks to our health. We're performing a public service."
She said people need access to reliable sources of information like her network, especially during this pandemic.
ABS-CBN broadcast into small communities, which may now lack access to news, she said.
"It will be difficult for them to make decisions without the right information, when to go out of your house, where to go to buy medicine, where to get government aid. So this type of public service that we perform will be gone," she said.
"This shows what kind of priorities this government has."
"It's so ironic that it comes just a few days after we celebrate World Press Freedom Day," Oreña-Drilon said.
"This is the gift that the government is giving the Filipino people."
Written by Justin Chandler. Interview with Ces Oreña-Drilon produced by Jeanne Armstrong.