Duterte Threat Against TV Network Sets up Congressional Clash

President Rodrigo Duterte’s renewed threat, delivered earlier this week, to block the renewal of the broadcasting license of the country’s biggest and most influential broadcast network puts him squarely at odds with one of the Philippines’ oldest and most prominent families, which operates the Lopez Group of Companies and other enterprises.

Duterte (above, with Eugeno Lopez in 2018), still smarting from the refusal of the Lopez interests’ ABS-CBN network to air his political commercials in the 2016 presidential race allegedly after taking his advertising money, said Tuesday that “Your franchise will end next year. If you’re expecting it to be renewed, I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out.”

That is expected to set up a battle for influence in the Philippine Congress, where Duterte currently appears to hold most of the cards as power flows to the chief executive’s office. Five bills have been tabled to extend the network's 25-year franchise but lawmakers said none would be acted on this year.

“Philippine congress members should resist the president’s effort to shut down ABS-CBN,” said Human Rights Watch in a prepared release. “Appeasing a vindictive president who is hell-bent on frustrating accountability for his policies will have far-reaching implications for media freedom, human rights, and democracy.”

It is at least the president’s third such threat against ABS-CBN, which he has repeatedly accused of unfair reporting. He earlier threatened to file charges against the media company for allegedly defrauding him, although according to reports the broadcaster attempted to return his money and his campaign refused it. He has accused it of slanting its reporting against him and favoring politicians identified with the opposition.

Although not among the richest, the Lopez family has been prominent in the Philippines since the early 1800s when the patriarch arrived from China and took the name Basilio Lopez. The family also controls First Philippine Holdings Corporation, whose other major business interests are power generation and distribution along with manufacturing and property development.

One of its scions, Fernando, served twice as the country’s vice president – once with former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, before he fell out with him. A daughter, Gina, an environmentalist and social activist, served as Duterte’s Secretary of the Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources) until he apparently tired of her activism although officially she served only on an “interim” basis. She died at 65 in August.

From their powerful political base in communications and manufacturing, the family has played kingmakers to national leaders for decades. The late Benigno S. Aquino Jr., who was assassinated in 1983, called them “giant killers,” calling them “the only family that has consistently stayed on the fringes of power since 1945.” He later called them “the manipulators of political balances in this country.’

The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos seized the Lopez media empire, which opposed his strongman rule, in 1972 and turned it over to a group of companies controlled by Robert Benedicto. It was returned to them in 1986 when Marcos fell and was forced to flee the country.

The president has been on an increasing rampage against the press and his critics, in July filing sedition charges against 36 individuals including the country’s vice president, Leni Robredo. Since his 2016 election, the 74-year-old Duterte has not only jailed former Attorney General Leila de Lima on dubious charges of complicity in drug deals but has used the impeachment process to get rid of the highly respected former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and replaced her with a Duterte ally. Sereno opposed Duterte’s attempts to go after judges whom he accused of being sympathetic to drug interests, saying the court could police itself.

Rappler, a phenomenally popular news website run by former television journalist Maria Ressa, has been a particular target. Ressa, one of Time Magazine’s 2018 Persons of the Year and one of Asia’s most distinguished journalists, has been repeatedly arrested and forced to pay bail on a long string of charges widely perceived as harassment for Rappler’s refusal to buckle under and stop criticizing Duterte’s ill-starred drug campaign.

The threat to ABS-CBS stems from a longtime requirement that broadcasters must secure congressional licenses to continue to operate. ABS-CBN’s franchise, issued in 1995, is to expire next March

Human Rights Watch charged that “ Duterte has politically allied himself with the Marcos family, which has been trying to rehabilitate its long-tattered image of abuse and corruption.

But the NGO said, perhaps the real reason for these threats is ABS-CBN’s critical reporting of Duterte, “particularly his murderous ‘war on drugs.’ The network has aired and published award-winning reports on the extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers and users by the police.