Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared this week that he would not recognize any new license granted by Congress to ABS-CBN, the major television network that the government forced off the air in July 2020. Duterte repeated his claim – already debunked – that the broadcaster, one of the Philippines’ largest, owed back taxes. Duterte said he would tell the National Telecommunications Commission, which regulates the broadcast industry, not to give ABS-CBN a permit to operate even if it gets a new congressional franchise that some legislators are pushing for in the House of Representatives. In December 2019, Duterte had unilaterally declared “your franchise will end next year” – referring to ABS-CBN’s license, which needed renewal by March 2020.
The network, then the most watched and influential broadcaster in the country, had earned the Duterte’s ire for its reporting on human rights abuses related to the administration’s murderous “war on drugs.” The president also accused the network of being biased in favor of his political opponents. Duterte’s tirade is just his latest attempt to violate press freedom in the Philippines, particularly at a time when calls for accountability for the numerous human rights violations committed by his government are mounting. His administration has sought to intimidate Rappler, the online news website, and filed cases against its founding editor and chief executive Maria Ressa, who has been arrested many times and faces multiple court cases.
The military and the police, aided by swarms of pro-government trolls on social media, have likewise harassed journalists, accusing them of supporting the communist insurgency. Some journalists have been arrested as part of this campaign, and a few have lost their lives to unidentified gunmen. Although the president holds the authority to veto congressional franchises, Duterte should not be able to wield it in violation of international law. His latest threat against ABS-CBN is yet another blow to media freedom in the Philippines, which has long had a vibrant press. He should stop his assault on the media and instruct those attacking journalists to stand down.
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