Philippines’ Duterte Runs Into Opposition on Threat to End News Foe

But president expected to try to ram through ABS-CBN removal anyway

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is running into uncharacteristically heavy weather in his campaign to shut down the country’s biggest broadcast network, with the Congress showing unexpected opposition, rights groups and journalism organizations protesting and hundreds of thousands of people submitting signatures against the move.

On February 18, Solicitor General Jose Calida asked the Supreme Court to issue a gag order against the station, owned by the influential Lopez family, from making public comments on a petition before the court to rule that the station has no legal right to a broadcast license.

ABS-CBN’s license is up for renewal in Congress before March 30. Duterte has vowed to shut it down over the network’s unflattering reports about his murderous drug program and over allegations that it refused to carry his 2016 presidential campaign advertisements and declined to return his payments. The broadcaster says it tried to return his money but he refused to take it.

The company itself said through a spokesman, Theodore Te, that its artists and management are free to express their opinions, at least for now, despite the solicitor general’s gag order request. 

“The more important reason is the Constitution actually allows it and protects it— the right to free expression and rights of free press,” Te told CNN PhilippinesTe called Calida’s move to bar the company and its representatives from discussing Duterte’s challenge “premature” as the high court has yet to officially take on the case.

Despite the growing opposition to his attempts to shut the network down, the consensus is that it is likely that he will ignore it, as he has with his vow to revoke the Visiting Forces Agreement that allows United States troops and materiel on Filipino soil in the longstanding campaigns against Islamic fundamentalists and Communists. 

Although influential members of his cabinet and members of Congress have opposed that decision, he remains steadfast out of anger over a US refusal to renew the visa of the former police chief who first implemented his quixotic drug war. That has taken the lives of at least 6,000 mostly poor drug addicts and possibly thousands more while having little permanent effect on the Philippines’ drug use problems. The Philippine Justice Department also last week filed charges against former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, one of the president’s harshest critics, accusing him of conspiracy to commit sedition to “create hatred or revenge against the President and his family with the end view of toppling and destabilizing the current administration." 

“Forced to make a prediction, we think Duterte won’t sign the renewal of the franchise, even if Congress passes it,” said a country risk analyst. “Duterte, in the second half of his term, is willing to make unpopular decisions and pick fights with powerful forces.”

The majority of Filipinos get their news from social media, with 45.4 million of the country’s 105 million population using Facebook. Duterte maintains an army of Facebook trolls who dominate the medium. The mainstream media make little headway against them. The latest poll by Social Weather Stations, considered the country’s most reliable polling organization, gave him an “excellent” net satisfaction rating of +72 in the final three months of 2019, beating his previous record of +68 set in June last year.

Nonetheless, the opposition to Duterte’s campaign to silence the broadcaster has been ferocious. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines submitted a list of 200,0000-plus signatures to members of the House of Representatives, demanding that the franchise be renewed. The NUJP has also been holding weekly Friday protests to call on the government to renew the franchise, while gathering additional signatures. It has been joined by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in denouncing the government’s action, calling ABS-CBN “a cornerstone of Philippine democracy and the free press for its independent and critical reportage and massive following in the country and abroad.” 

“This is ridiculous, a clear case of adding insult to injury,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. “First the government petitions to end the ABS-CBN franchise and now it is proposing to silence all critics with an absurd gag order on specious grounds. Why are President Duterte and the Philippines government so scared of independent opinions and a free press? Let’s hope the Supreme Court upholds the principle of freedom of expression and rules against the Solicitor-General.”

Amnesty’s Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin called Calida’s request for a gag order a “clear attempt to silence critics of the government,” adding that should it be approved, it “would set a very dangerous precedent in violation of the right to freedom of expression. It is particularly reprehensible that the government is requesting to prevent people from freely discussing issues of public interest such as media freedom, and ongoing human rights violations in the country.”

Shawn Crispin, the Bangkok-based senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, demanded that Calida “withdraw his legal threat against ABS-CBN, and refrain from any action that puts undue pressure on the news broadcaster’s franchise renewal. The timing, tone, and content of this legal complaint make it clear that this is not an administrative disagreement, but a political persecution.”

Daniel Bastard, the head of the Asia-Pacific desk of Reporters Without Borders earlier urged the Congress to renew the franchise, weeks before the media giant's current franchise is set to expire, saying: “As the leading TV and radio network, offering independent, verified news and information free of charge to millions of citizens, ABS-CBN plays an absolutely fundamental democratic role in the Philippines." 

Although not among the richest, the Lopez family, which owns ABS-CBN, has been prominent in the Philippines since the early 1800s. The family also controls First Philippine Holdings Corporation, whose other major business interests are power generation and distribution along with manufacturing and property development.

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

 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.”

To Duterte’s charge that the station is owned by overseas interests because of its holdings of Philippine Depositary Receipts – a charge Duterte has also attempted to use against the popular independent news website Rappler – ABS-CBN said the receipts “were evaluated and approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Philippine Stock Exchange prior to its public offering,” and that many other telecommunications companies use the same instruments to raise capital.