MANILA—The Philippine government’s order on Tuesday to shut down the biggest news network in the country, which was often criticized by President Rodrigo Duterte, sent shock waves among journalists and human rights groups worried over its impact on press freedom.
Columnist John Nery described the cease and desist order as an “abomination,” noting it went against the justice department’s position that ABS-CBN should be allowed to operate while Congress was yet to act on its application for a new broadcast franchise.
“If we’re in war right now, this is Pearl Harbor, a sudden and traitorous attack, on media freedom and free expression,” said journalist Felipe Salvosa II, who heads the journalism program of the University of Santo Tomas.
The shutdown order came while Filipinos, like the rest of the world, were grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 9,600 people and killed 637 here.
“This is terrible. I find this really worrisome because it comes at a time when the media, in particular, ABS-CBN, have been stepping up in its role in the face of this pandemic,” said Vergel Santos, former chairman of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
“We are being blindsided here. We’ve been locked down and therefore focused on our own well-being, and this government is taking advantage of all of this incapacity.”
SCARED OF CALIDA
ABS-CBN’s 25-year franchise expired on May 4 with the House of Representatives conducting a lone hearing—which merely set ground rules on March 10—despite the long pending application.
In that hearing, NTC assured House members that it would issue a provisional authority to allow ABS-CBN to operate while Congress deliberated on a new franchise.
But Solicitor General Jose Calida on Sunday warned the NTC against allowing the network to remain on the air without a valid franchise granted by Congress.
Calida earlier asked the Supreme Court to revoke ABS-CBN’s existing franchise because of alleged violations, which the network denied.
Former House Deputy Speaker Erin Tañada tweeted that the NTC order showed that it was “scared of the threat of Calida than the legal cover” coming from the justice department and resolutions of Congress.
“The NTC order comes at a worst time and is meant to please the worst president,” said Danilo Arao, who teaches journalism at the University of the Philippines.
Tweeted former Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño: “After all is said and done, nanaig din si Calida at nagmukhang tanga ang Kongreso, Senado at DOJ.”
“The administration is clearly attacking the press and freedom loving people will fight back. Given this shutdown, we will not shut up.”
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch slammed the shutdown order, describing it as “a disaster on top of a disaster.”
“The Philippine government shows how little it cares about quality information reaching its people during the COVID-19 crisis as it shuts down ABS-CBN network,” he tweeted.
“Media freedom dying today.”