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LETTER TO THE EDITOR

‘Right of media to operate without restraint guaranteed by international treaty’

/ 04:01 AM May 18, 2020

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) denounces the May 5 decision by the Philippines’ National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to issue an order to ABS-CBN Corp., one of the leading media outlets in the country, to cease its on-air operations.

The ICJ asserts that the action against ABS-CBN violates the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes the rights of the media to operate without censorship or restraint and the public’s right to access information. This right is guaranteed under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Philippines is a State Party to the ICCPR. A free and unhindered media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression and other human rights. It is one of the cornerstones of a democratic society.

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The NTC’s basis for issuing the order is that ABS-CBN’s legislative franchise had expired last May 4 and action has yet to be taken on its renewal by the House of Representatives. We fear that the reasons for this delay may be politically motivated. Given the stakes for freedom of expression, we urge the NTC to follow its own precedents whereby it has allowed broadcast and telecommunications companies to operate beyond their franchise expiry dates, pending the renewal.

The action taken against ABS-CBN is part of a pattern of harassment of independent media by governmental authorities in the Philippines. President Duterte has, in the past, expressed resentment toward ABS-CBN for allegedly refusing to air his political ads when he ran for office in 2016. The network is also known to have aired views critical of his administration’s murderous “war on drugs.” In December 2019, Mr. Duterte said that he would make sure that ABS CBN’s franchise would not be renewed. This is not the first time that he has sought to silence a media outlet critical of his administration.

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There are at least 11 bills seeking the renewal of the franchise currently pending at the House, with the earliest filed in July 2019. It is taking the House an inordinately long period of time to approve the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise. It appears that the allies of this administration in the House are holding the franchise renewal like a sword over ABS-CBN’s head to chill it from airing critical views about the government. (The House is now deliberating a bill seeking to grant a provisional license to the network and allowing it to go back on air until Oct. 31.—Ed.)

The UN Human Rights Committee, the ICCPR’s supervisory body, has said that States must avoid imposing onerous licensing conditions on broadcast media, and that the criteria for the application of these conditions should be reasonable, objective, clear, transparent, and nondiscriminatory.

This action against ABS-CBN comes in the middle of a global pandemic when access to information is vital in the country’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. We call on the Philippine government to uphold and respect freedom of opinion and expression, and ensure that a free press can operate without censorship or restraint. We also remind the government that the public’s access to information is vital to ensure public health and safety during the COVID-19 crisis.

International  Commission of Jurists

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TAGS: ABS-CBN franchise, International Commission of Jurists, Letter to the Editor, NTC, press freedom, Rodrigo Duterte
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