Media group blasts Duterte threat vs ABS-CBN, calls for vigilance
An independent group of journalists on Tuesday said President Rodrigo Duterte’s advice to owners of ABS-CBN to sell the broadcast giant was a threat to press freedom and rallied Filipinos to defend free expression in the country.
“We call on the community of independent Filipino journalists and on citizens who cherish democracy to band together and protect the free arena of ideas that the closure or forced sale of ABS-CBN would severely weaken,” said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) in a statement.
“The alternative—the death of freedom of the press and of free expression—is too horrible to contemplate,” it said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite, a member of the Makabayan bloc, echoed the call, saying all journalists in the Philippines and abroad “and all those who stand for the truth must band together and stop this attack on press freedom.”
“If not,” he added, “tyranny and fake news would prevail.”
The President has publicly said he would “see to it” that the radio-TV network’s franchise would not be renewed after it expires on March 30.
“This ABS (ABS-CBN), your contract (franchise) will expire. If you renew it, I don’t know what will happen to you,” Mr. Duterte said in a rambling speech on Monday in M’lang, Cotabato province. “If I were you, just sell it.”
Four weeks earlier, Mr. Duterte told the company owners: “Your franchise will end next year. If you are expecting that it will be renewed, I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out.”
The Lopez family is the controlling owner of the publicly listed company, which was among hundreds of media companies shuttered in 1972 when dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law.
There has been no comment from the company or the Lopez family on Mr. Duterte’s statement on Monday.
Signs of shakedown
But the NUJP said the latest tirade against ABS-CBN “bears all the signs of a shakedown and raises questions over his real intentions for seeking to block the renewal of the broadcast network’s franchise.”
“The fact is Duterte has already shown a propensity for coercion, as he did in 2017 when he publicly told ABS-CBN to support his federalism drive and he would agree to settle his difference with the network,” it said.
The NUJP noted that Mr. Duterte’s statement appeared to be “marching orders” to his allies in Congress, which had not acted on bills to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise.
Mr. Duterte has not hidden his displeasure with ABS-CBN since it aired a negative TV ad against him that was paid for by former Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV during the presidential campaign.
Liable for estafa
The campaign ad showed children disliking videos of Mr. Duterte cursing Pope Francis and his joke about the gang rape and murder of an Australian missionary during a prison riot in Davao City in 1989.
The President later said the TV network had been unfair in reporting about him, including his brutal war on drugs.
He has also said ABS-CBN was liable for estafa for allegedly not providing him the airtime he had paid for during the campaign.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III played down the President’s latest statement, saying press freedom in the country is “freer than [in] most parts of the world.”
“We even publish ‘fake news’ [here],” Sotto said in a Viber message to the Inquirer.
Regarding Mr. Duterte’s advice to just sell the network, he said: “The President’s ‘advice’ is simply that, an advice.”
Gaite said the President should just sue ABS-CBN if he had any grievance against it “rather than trample on press freedom and the jobs of at least 7,000 employees.”
Mr. Duterte’s statement that ABS-CBN’s owners should just sell the network “also cast another bad light on the issue because it would seem that another close friend of the President is interested in the company,” Gaite said, without naming who he was referring to.
“Duterte portrays himself as ‘antioligarch’ but actually supports a different clique of oligarchs,” he said.
The President’s fresh attack on the TV network came as his friend, Davao City businessman Dennis Uy, was expanding into the media and entertainment business with the founding of Udenna Communications Media and Entertainment Holdings Corp.
Since Mr. Duterte came to power, Udenna, Uy’s holding company, has rapidly expanded into several businesses. It is now engaged in oil product distribution and convenience store business, shipping and logistics, property development and leasing, among others. Uy recently acquired Chevron’s 45-percent stake in the Malampaya gas-to-power project.
ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro, another Makabayan bloc member, urged her colleagues in the House of Representatives to open hearings on nine bills on the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, which have been pending since July 2019.
“He (the President) is blocking the renewal to intimidate and scare off mass media. He has done this to the Inquirer, and he also leveled similar threats and constant verbal attacks against radio stations owned by the (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines),” she said.
A “common denominator” on these threats against the media is their reportage on the drug war and extrajudicial killings, Castro said.
She called on Congress to be fair and not to reinforce the public impression that it has become a rubberstamp of the President.
“It should furthermore take immediate action in light of the thousands of people whose livelihoods are at stake with the closure of the station, and the larger issue of freedom of expression and the press,” Castro said.
Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano has said the House decided to prioritize hearing the 2020 national budget rather than the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise.
Cayetano vowed that the House would be fair in deliberating the franchise renewal, even if he, too, had a “personal complaint” against the network. network.—WITH REPORTS FROM PATRICIA DENISE M. CHIU, MARLON RAMOS, DJ YAP, MELVIN GASCON AND INQUIRER RESEARCH