Independent journalism and access to information threatened in the Philippines with the closure of ABS-CBN

Dear National Telecommunications Commission, the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives of the Republic of the Philippines,

We, the undersigned group of media unions, international press freedom advocacy groups and civil society organisations, denounce the Philippine government’s closure of the country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, and the failure of the Philippine Congress to do its duty and act on the renewal of the network’s franchise.

It is unfortunate that as the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has also moved to further restrict media freedom, hamper journalists from pursuing relevant news, and intimidate those critical of the state and its agencies, at a time when information can mean life and death to people coping not just with the pandemic but other crises as well.

Nothing illustrates this better than the service of a “cease and desist” order by the National Telecommunications Commission on May 5, a day after its franchise expired following years of congressional inaction on bills urging for its renewal.

Defenders of the ABS-CBN network’s closure have been quick to point out that it has continued to broadcast the news online, despite its removal from all other mediums. But the fact remains that in many areas in the country the internet is inaccessible or connections are poor. We remind that the ABS-CBN free channel serves as the people’s only constant source of news from the nation and the world. These citizens are now in the dark.

In many more regions in the archipelago, where the economic downturn has forced the demise of at least half of the country’s community newspapers, the loss of the network’s content has left people with fewer independent news sources, leaving them more vulnerable to misinformation, disinformation and political propaganda.

The closure of this major media enterprise, at this or any other time, defies good sense and democratic values. It also violates the principle of equal protection under the law with other networks in the country allowed to operate after their franchises lapsed as Congress deliberated on their renewal.

While the House of Representatives has passed on a second reading of a bill granting the network a provisional franchise valid till October of 2020, it is, at best, a feeble half measure that reflects how little legislators value a free and independent media. An indefinite extension until Congress completes what it is mandated to do is critical.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s repeated threats to block the renewal of the network’s franchise, as part of his administration’s assault against an independent and critical media, is well documented since at least 2017. This animosity has driven a legal offensive against the independent news organisation Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa; has pushed the Philippine Daily Inquirer to the brink of a sellout; and has led to constant harassment by government and its supporters against journalists who question the administration’s agenda and narrative.

Given this context, it is little surprise that the Congress has also to date failed to review the network’s application for franchise renewal, or that the Solicitor General threatened graft charges against the National Telecommunications Commission if it granted ABS-CBN a provisional permit to operate as it had promised the Senate.

We support the continuation of a strong and vibrant Philippine media, which has proven its huge value to broader society, both acting independently as well as in conjunction with government efforts during times of disaster. That same media provides the disenfranchised a voice to speak truth to power and stand up for the rights of the marginalized.

ABS-CBN, in its petition for certiorari filed on May 7 before the Supreme Court, said the cease and desist order against its operations is a clear curtailment of the freedom of speech and the press. People in the Philippines and around the world are backing a growing call to return the network to air.

During the coronavirus pandemic, free access to information, entertainment, and public service broadcasting must be made available. Our appeal to bring ABS-CBN back on air upholds the peoples’ right to information from which press freedom emanates.

We, the undersigned stand in solidarity with them in resisting all attempts to curtail press freedom in the Philippines and repress its people’s free expression and call for the following:

  • For the National Telecommunications Commission to withdraw the cease and desist order against ABS-CBN, which remains a disservice to the Filipino people, especially at this time of crisis;
  • For the Supreme Court to uphold press freedom and to urgently grant the temporary restraining order for the ABS-CBN units to go back on air to continue serving the public amid the coronavirus pandemic;
  • For the House of Representative to grant ABS-CBN a fresh 25-year franchise. Eleven bills seeking its renewal are now pending and are waiting to be heard.


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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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