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Duterte government's shutdown of ABS-CBN threatens Philippine freedom

News network closure comes as president consolidates pandemic powers

| Philippines

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy." He was a resident political analyst for ABS-CBN in 2016.

For the first time since its forced closure in 1972, when President Ferdinand Marcos placed the Philippines under martial law, the country's largest media conglomerate has effectively been told to shut down its TV and radio broadcasts.

Earlier this month, the National Telecommunications Commission of the Philippines issued a cease-and-desist order to the ABS-CBN news network after its franchise expired. The NTC claimed that it was following the law, but other networks have been allowed to operate for weeks pending the renewal of their franchise.

Critics and even allies of President Rodrigo Duterte, who vowed in December 2019 to block the network's franchise renewal, have implicated him in the affair by accusing his solicitor general of pressuring the NTC. Duterte has claimed to be "completely neutral" on the status of ABS-CBN's license.

Instead of washing his hands of the issue, the Filipino leader should actively dispel fears he is using the ABS-CBN shutdown to consolidate his power during a national emergency.

Since coming to power in 2016, Duterte has engaged in a systematic campaign of intimidation against the so-called "oligarchs," mainly leading liberal businessmen, who have dominated the country's most important sectors.

Presenting himself as a heroic outsider -- he is the first president elected from the southern island of Mindanao -- Duterte claims to fight for the interest of ordinary folks, reasserting state authority over the country's rapacious elite. It is a populist narrative which has struck a chord in a nation where the 40 richest families have a tight hold over industry and a small number of political dynasties have dominated among the country's elected offices.

But in taking on ABS-CBN, he is not attacking any old company -- the station is a fundamental part of how Filipinos get their information, all the more vital during a pandemic. Before the shutdown, ABS-CBN had between 31% and 44% of the total news and entertainment market.

For many observers, what lies at the heart of the populist rhetoric and the attack on ABS-CBN is nothing but personal vendetta and petty politics, rather than the assertion of the public interest against allegedly ravenous oligarchs.

Duterte's longtime assistant and current Senator Bong Go has admitted that personal feelings have been a major driver of Duterte's invective. "The grievances of the president against [ABS-CBN] are not shallow. He was hurt and felt violated," Go said earlier this year, referring to ABS-CBN's decision to air negative political ads against Duterte during the 2016 elections. "If you are mean to the president, he will be meaner to you. If you are nice to the president, then he will be nicer to you."

Personal feelings have been a major driver of Duterte's invective.   © Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division/AP

Duterte and his supporters have long accused ABS-CBN, which is owned by the prominent Lopez family, of unfair coverage, liberal bias, tax evasion and even "swindling." Others have accused the network of creative accounting and undue exploitation of tax breaks, since rival GMA Network has reportedly paid significantly higher taxes.

ABS-CBN and the Lopez family deny all of this, and Senate investigation has revealed that the media conglomerate has not engaged in any illegal activity.

ABS-CBN's saga is far from isolated. Rappler, the country's leading online news company, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country's largest newspaper, have faced similar threats or charges from Duterte in the past. All three media networks have prominently featured news and commentary critical of Duterte's war on drugs, his China-leaning foreign policy and authoritarian brand of populism.

It extends beyond the media. In February this year, after weeks of public attacks which crashed the company's stock price, Duterte effectively forced Ayala, a conglomerate owned by liberal-leaning brothers, to sell 25% of Manila Water to another billionaire, who has ably kept out of politics and maintained stable ties with Duterte.

If anything, arrests and intimidation of critics and media figures have intensified in recent weeks as Duterte has assumed emergency powers to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. ABS-CBN's closure, therefore, sits in this broader context of seeming muzzling of critical voices and subduing liberal businessmen.

From President Vladimir Putin in Russia to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, wily and determined populists have neutered independent media through a creative combination of tax evasion and regulatory charges. It is no wonder that human rights groups, activists and liberal civil society fear that ABS-CBN's fate may have a chilling effect on the Philippines' media landscape and even pave the way for the takeover of independent media by regime cronies.

Yet all is not lost. Duterte can dampen fears of an authoritarian crackdown by respecting the outcome of the impending Supreme Court decision on the ABS-CBN issue; refraining from any campaign of intimidation against independent media; and nudging his allies in the Congress to stop dragging their foot on renewal of the network's franchise.

Fortunately, there are encouraging signs on the horizon, with chief Duterte ally and congressional Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano promising to give the media network a temporary franchise until October 31, while deliberating the 25-year permit renewal: "We will not pass the buck. We will have hearings and finish this."

Otherwise, Duterte will only reinforce lingering fears that he is following in the footsteps of populist authoritarians who have systematically neutered the opposition, mastered the media and consolidated power.

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