Duterte govt. accused of muzzling press freedom over ABS-CBN shutdown


The shutdown of Philippine media network ABS-CBN drew condemnation from international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), accusing the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte of muzzling press freedom.

In a statement on Tuesday, HRW called out the country’s Solicitor General Jose Calida to stop acting like President Rodrigo Duterte’s attack dog and for the Philippine congress to have the last say on the matter.

ABS-CBN was ordered to stop television and radio broadcasting by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) through a cease and desist order and the media group went off the air on Tuesday.

HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson noted that NTC’s order came on the heels of warnings from Solicitor General Calida, that the commission cannot grant provisional authorities contrary to the request of the House of Representatives.

“The order was handed down two days after the government’s lawyer, Solicitor General Jose Calida, warned the NTC against giving the network provisional authority to operate when its congressional franchise expired on May 04. Human Rights Watch views this turn of events with deep concern, coming as it did on the heels of efforts by the Duterte administration to intimidate and muzzle the Philippine press,” Robertson said in a statement.

“The NTC should rescind this order. The Solicitor General should stop acting like Duterte’s attack dog. The Philippine Congress, which earlier agreed to consider an extension of the franchise, should assert its mandate and authority over matters like this,” he added.

Solicitor General Calida has previously filed a quo warranto petition against the network last February, for supposedly using a corporate veil to hide foreign ownership and foreign investment.  NTC Deputy Commissioner Edgardo Cabarios did not explicitly mention it, but he said that the cease and desist order stemmed from questions about its franchise.

According to HRW, the cease and desist order’s timing was also off as the country is currently fighting the COVID-19 pandemic — of which ABS-CBN has provided vital information through a wide, nationwide coverage.

“This also comes at the worst possible time, when the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging countries like the Philippines and when accurate and truthful information is needed crucially,” Robertson explained.

“The Filipino people should reject this despotic move to harass and silence a media organization known not only for its reach but also for its competence and dedication to deliver the news,” he noted.

ABS-CBN’s shutdown came after its franchise expired on May 04, as Congress failed to renew it before going into a break for the Lenten Season.

However, since the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to stay at home, and as committee hearings over video conferencing may not be stable, the House of Representatives leadership asked NTC to grant a provisional franchise to ensure the network’s operation while issues are being ironed out.

ABS-CBN has been on the receiving end of criticism from President Rodrigo Duterte for their alleged biased coverage of him, and for failing to air his advertisements in the 2016 Presidential elections.  Previously, Duterte said that he would see to it that the network is shut down. (Source: INQUIRER.net)