Philippines’ largest media group becomes victim of Duterte’s ire

By Sara Gomez Armas

Manila, May 6 (EFE).- The Philippines’ largest media group ABS-CBN, which aired the country’s most popular news and entertainment programs, has been forced to shut down after being the target President Rodrigo Duterte’s criticism.

The television broadcaster was established in 1953, becoming the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, and the most popular in the Philippines.

The National Telecommunications Commission on Tuesday ordered the suspension of the group’s emissions after its 25-year license expired, the renewal of which remains pending before the Congress.

The group’s flagship ABS-CBN Channel 2 was the most-watched channel in the Philippines in 2019, with 44 percent viewership, and the network’s programs occupied the top nine spots in the 10 most-watched shows, according to data from consulting firm Kantar Media.

However, until the Congress takes a decision, the ABS-CBN’s 42 TV channels, 10 digital networks and 23 radio stations remain suspended, putting the future of its 11,000 employees at stake.

However, this is not the first time ABS-CBN has gone off air. The earlier instance was in 1972 when dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and took over control of the press.

But this is the first time that a large media outlet has faced this situation in a democracy, and came about following criticism from Duterte, who accused them of being unfair while reporting.

Although officials have denied that the president had a hand in the non-renewal of the license, Duterte is known to have repeatedly threatened to shut down the broadcaster.

“Your franchise will end next year. If you expect it to be renewed, I’m sorry. I will see to it that you’re out,” he told the owners of the ABS-CBN – controlled by the powerful Lopez family – in December.

Even though ABS-CBN news has not taken a particularly critical line with Duterte, they have rigorously and independently documented controversial issues concerning his government, particularly abuses during his violent and bloody war on drugs.

Although its editorial tone has been less confrontational than that of other media entities such as Rappler, Inquirer or Vera Files – all of which are subject to frequent insults from Duterte -, ABS-CBN reaches millions of viewers with TV Patrol, the most popular news show in the country, and other TV programs.

Some media outlets point out that the president’s anger towards ABS-CBN dates back the 2016 presidential race, when the group did not run an advertisement paid for by Duterte’s campaign since it was not approved by the election commission.

“We were sorry if we offended the President. That was not the intention of the network. We felt that we were just abiding by the laws and regulations that surround the airing of political ads,” the company’s President and CEO Carlo Katigbak said during a hearing before the Senate in February.

Although Duterte has not made any comment about ABS-CBN’s situation, several politicians and analysts blamed the president for “deliberate” delays in discussing the renewal of the broadcaster’s license in the Congress, dominated by his allies.

Moreover, the offensive against ABS-CBN has also come from the judicial flank, as Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a petition with the Supreme Court in February to annul the broadcaster’s license.

The matter is pending before the apex court.

In 1953, Philippines-based American businessman James Lindberg founded ABS, in what was Southeast Asia’s first television channel and the second in the continent after the Japanese Nippon TV.

In 1957, it merged with CBN, which was its main competitor and run by Eugenio Lopez, who went on to control the new group.

From then on, the growth of ABS-CBN was unstoppable. In 1966, it became the first TV channel in Southeast Asia to broadcast in color.

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