Philippines’ Duterte Stirs Hornet’s Nest With Broadcaster’s Cancellation

Outrage as vital news shows, entertainment go black

The administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has kicked off an enormous furor with the cancellation of the broadcast franchise of ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest network, with furious viewers threatening to take to the streets amid what may well be Asia’s most stringent Covid-19 lockdown.

The network’s franchise, which covers 42 television stations across the country, lapsed on May 4, with the National Telecommunications Commission refusing to renew it. The Lopez family, which owns the network – which also includes 10 digital broadcast channels, 18 FM stations and DZMM Radio, the country’s most popular radio station – has been in a protracted squabble with Duterte since the president was elected in 2016 over the network’s refusal to carry his political campaign ads. The company's other units and subsidiaries can continue operating online because they don't need a congressional franchise including news, entertainment, and sports.

In February, Carlo Katigback, the president and CEO of the network, delivered a public apology to Duterte and agreed the network would return PHP2900 that Duterte paid for a political ad that never ran. Duterte, in turn, told the station to donate the money to charity.

Although Katigbak 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 long been angered by ABS-CBN’s news division, which has long carried what he considers to be unflattering coverage of his murderous drug war, which has taken the lives of thousands of mostly poor and powerless Filipinos who use methamphetamines, called shabu locally.

The Lopez family, one of the Philippines’ oldest if not among the richest, has long been the target of disgruntled leaders. The family has been prominent in the Philippines since the early 1800s. 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.

“Families like the Lopez’s have long memories,” said a source with extensive knowledge of the country and its history. “When Marcos did that he created a major financier for the opposition that came around to bite his ass eventually. (Duterte) hates those guys.”  

While the cancellation has infuriated human rights and journalism protection groups over the loss of the country’s biggest broadcast news entity at a time when news of the Coronavirus is considered vital, it is the loss of entertainment features, including the noon “Showtime” variety and talent show, and “Ang Probinsyano” (The one From The Province), an enormously popular serial watched seemingly by half the country, when there is nothing else to do has raised anger levels.

How long the cancellation will last is unsure. But the betting is that antagonism toward the government is so high that the Senate, which has several bills pending for the renewal of the franchise, will move one of them as soon as possible, and that Duterte will be given the unappetizing task of having to sign it.

“I feel like the administration and its allies in Congress have totally lost control of this,” said a source with a country-risk firm. “It seems like there was an idea to have the franchise renewal hang over the head of ABS-CBN by having the renewal pending indefinitely. However, the NTC didn't want to be the one responsible for that.”

The decision to end the franchise, which had been in effect for 15 years, was pushed by Solicitor General Jose Calida, a Duterte ally, although the president has said he had nothing to do with the matter.  

“The justice secretary said on Monday that they should be allowed to continue operating, and that appears to be the position of the majority of congress,” the source said. “But with some extremist administration allies threatening to sue the NTC, NTC didn't want to be the one to make that decision, and so they kicked it back to Congress. This doesn’t seem like a move that was rationally planned out ahead of time.”

The public outrage is likely to force the hand of Congress, which is under pressure to pass the renewal, “and Rody is going to have to sign it, or face even more pushback,” he said.

Nonetheless, “The implications of this are going to be serious, the usual chilling effect on media and journalists,” said a Philippines-based representative of Human Rights Watch. “If the government can do this to the country’s largest broadcaster, think of what must be in the minds of the smaller ones right now. Whether Duterte overturns the NTC decision or ABS-CBN brings this to the courts, the effects on media would be that they're put on notice, that they better not mess with the government. This is a shot across the bow.”

It is especially a shot across the bow of Rappler, the popular online news site that Duterte has had in his sights since he came into office for its unstinting efforts to expose the seamier details of his war on crime, which has largely left alone the powerful drug importers who bring in methamphetamine from China through the country’s porous ports.  Maria Ressa, who heads Rappler, has been arrested repeatedly on trumped-up charges of corporate misdoings. Despite the harassment, Rappler has continued to cover the news aggressively.

Besides Rappler, however, Duterte virtually since he has been elected has waged a scorched-earth war against not only an independent press but most of the country’s democratic institutions. He forced changes to the Supreme Court that have made it an echo chamber for his policies. Early on, he engineered the “preventive detention” of Leila de Lima, the justice secretary in the previous administration and former head of the Philippines Human Rights Commission on trumped-up charges, sought to have his most implacable legislative critic Antonio Trillanes IV jailed, attempted to force the sale of the Philippine Enquirer newspaper, which had been critical of his policies, and overrode all opposition to his drug war. He has sought to drive out Leni Robredo, the vice president, and replace her with Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

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.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Asian Forum on Human Rights and Development, Amnesty International, and several local legal and journalism organizations including the National Union of Journalists and the Philippine Foreign Correspondents Association joined Human Rights Watch in condemning the action.