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Push back against press suppression

After a long “moro-moro” among Malacañang officials and congressional leaders, the threat of President Duterte to shut down ABS-CBN was finally consummated on May 5 with the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) ordering the media giant to stop from operating its television and radio stations nationwide following the expiration of its legislative franchise.

The reprehensible action was preceded by hypocrisy. Days prior to the order, the NTC had assured Congress that it would allow ABS-CBN to operate while awaiting deliberations on the renewal of its franchise. Malacañang, on the other hand, like Pontius Pilate, washed its hands and said it was up to the NTC to allow the temporary extension.

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Two days earlier, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said Malacañang recognized the importance of press freedom. On Sept. 11 last year, Mr. Duterte told Malacañang reporters his administration will remain steadfast in upholding press freedom and respecting the constitutionally protected freedom of speech.

On several occasions, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano assured that ABS-CBN will not shut down its operations even if its franchise expired. Cayetano and Palawan Rep. Franz Alvarez, the legislative franchises committee chair, even enjoined the NTC to grant a provisional authority to ABS-CBN effective May 4, 2020, “until such time that the House of Representatives/Congress has made a decision on its application.”

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The hypocrisy of all these became apparent when Solicitor General Jose Calida, who had earlier filed a quo warranto petition against ABS-CBN to have the network’s franchise revoked, warned the NTC against granting provisional authority to the station.

Calida was the same man who sought the closure of online news provider Rappler in January 2018 and spearheaded the impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno based on his quo warranto petition before the Supreme Court.

The closure of ABS-CBN and the attempted shuttering of Rappler in 2018 reinforce a clear pattern of harassment and suppression under President Duterte’s increasingly repressive regime. Although the move against Rappler was made by the Securities and Exchange Commission through the revocation of its certificate of incorporation, and the shutdown of ABS-CBN was made through the NTC, it was obvious that both agencies acted under pressure from Malacañang.

The closure orders came after repeated allegations by the President that Rappler was a purveyor of fake news, and that ABS-CBN was putting out fake news and after repeated threats that the station would be shut down.

Mr. Duterte had also accused the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer of nonpayment of taxes and holding on to government land beyond the terms of the contract. The Inquirer owners eventually gave in to pressure and gave up the lease on the questioned land. In all fairness, the Inquirer editorial staff has continued to defy administration pressure in its commitment to truth.

Curiously, a day before the ABS-CBN shutdown, presidential legal adviser Salvador Panelo said the COVID-19 pandemic could be considered an “invasion” and a ground for declaring martial law. A few days earlier, Mr. Duterte had also raised the specter anew when he said he would not hesitate to declare martial law if lawlessness continued.

The harassment of Rappler and Inquirer, the incarceration of Sen. Leila de Lima, the other threats against what the administration calls “dilawan” and other critics, the constant threat of martial law, and now the closure of ABS-CBN are all meant to intimidate and silence the President’s harshest critics.

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But, just as these critics have remained steadfast in their commitment to democracy, all freedom-loving Filipinos should not be cowed by these latest repressive acts. As National Union of Journalists of the Philippines president Nonoy Espina said, “we have to push back on this.”

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Val G. Abelgas is a former managing editor of the defunct Daily Express and Times Journal, and the Manila Standard. He publishes and edits a newspaper in the United States and writes a weekly column for several Filipino publications in the United States and Canada.

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TAGS: ABS-CBN, Commentary, INQUIRER, Jose Calida, media suppression, press supression, Rappler, Val G. Abelgas
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