Duterte Drubs Broadcast Network, Endangering Press Freedom

ABS-CBN president issues humiliating apology in quest to keep license

The humiliating apology by Carlo Katigback, the president and CEO of the Philippine broadcast network ABS-CBN (above) to Rodrigo Duterte before the Senate on February 24 is the latest demonstration of the president’s political clout against the press and his enemies.

It’s uncertain what that means for press freedom in the Philippines and whether ABS-CBN will temper its reporting on the mercurial president’s activities. It still faces a lawsuit in the Supreme Court that is designed to put it out of business and its franchise is up for renewal in the Congress before March 30.

“If they survive, it’s a win for press freedom, whatever it takes,” said a political risk analyst. “I am not sure anyone really knows how to cover Duterte without upsetting him, and particularly how to do so while still maintaining credibility as a journalist.”

In addition to the apology, the network agreed to return PHP2900 that Duterte paid for a political ad that never ran. Duterte, in turn, told the station to donate the money to charity.

In a classic grovel, the station issued a public statement saying the owners “are grateful and humbled” by Duterte’s acceptance and added that “We will coordinate with the President’s office as it relates to his guidance on donating the refund to a charitable institution. ABS-CBN remains committed to becoming a better organization and to continue to provide more meaningful service to Filipinos.”

Duterte has waged war on several news organizations including the popular news portal Rappler and the leading broadsheet daily The Inquirer as well as ABS-CBN for carrying stories critical of his murderous – drug war and other issues.

While Duterte accepted Katigbak’s apology and indicated he wouldn’t oppose the renewal, the broadcaster still faces the Supreme Court action, filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida accusing it of broadcasting for a fee and operating a "pay-per-view” channel without prior approval or permit from the National Telecommunications Commission and well as depending on foreign investment for its operations.

“I think the most likely thing now is that they find a way to drag this out and have this hanging over ABS-CBN, so that they are afraid to make any wrong move,” the analyst said. 

 But the president’s roughshod mindset against those who oppose him comes at a time when the investment climate is weakening, with multinationals pulling in their horns and fleeing the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries. The coronavirus scare is adding to the flight of investors from all over Asia. 

How much the president’s attacks on the United States, old-line Filipino families, the press and other enemies has to do with their departure, if anything, isn’t known. But Ernesto Pernia, the president’s socioeconomic planning secretary, told the Philippine Star last week that cancellation of ABS-CBN’s franchise could get in the way of pursuing diversity in the economy and affect investor confidence. 

The ailing former telephone manufacturer Nokia is closing its research and development unit in Quezon City, cutting 700 tech jobs; Honda Cars Philippines is ceasing production at its Santa Rosa, Laguna plant, cutting 387 jobs; Wells Fargo Bank is downsizing its offshoring operation and cutting 700 jobs and transferring them to India, and carmaker Nissan is eyeing closing production plants in three countries including the Philippines, having announced it would cut 12,500 jobs globally.

The action against ABS-CBN is the latest in a growing series of authoritarian moves. The US and the Philippines are involved in a petty war over visas that started with a fit of pique because the US won’t let a corrupt crony into the country. That impelled Duterte to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement that authorizes US troops to aid the Philippines in the country’s long-running attempt to quell Islamist radical insurgents and New People’s Army communists. Aid to the Philippines is estimated at PHP10 billion.

The Philippine has also denied visas US Senators Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin after they sought to ban Filipino officials involved in what they called the "wrongful imprisonment" of Leila De Lima, the former justice secretary under President Benigno S. Aquino III and a staunch critic of Duterte’s drug war.

The government is now threatening to require all American citizens to obtain visas to enter the Philippines.