Bangkok, February 11, 2020 — Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida should withdraw a petition asking the Supreme Court to cancel television news broadcaster ABS-CBN’s franchise agreement and should stop all legal harassment of the media organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Yesterday, Calida, the country’s top attorney, filed a petition to the court alleging that ABS-CBN Corporation, a privately owned news network whose broadcasting agreement is due to expire on March 30, and its subsidiary ABS-CBN Convergence Inc., were involved in “highly abusive practices” and had violated the terms of their license, according to a statement from the solicitor general’s office, which CPJ reviewed, and news reports.
The Supreme Court gave ABS-CBN ten days to respond to the petition, according to a CNN report.
In December 2019, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened that his government would not renew the broadcaster’s franchise agreement, thereby forcing it to stop broadcasting, as CPJ documented at the time. ABS-CBN has published award-winning critical reports on domestic terrorism, Duterte’s war on drugs campaign, and other sensitive topics.
The Philippine Star reported that Calida declined to answer questions from reporters when he submitted the petition, saying only that the move was not political. When CPJ emailed the Solicitor General’s Office for comment, the office replied with its official statement but did not respond to questions.
“Solicitor General Jose Calida should withdraw his legal threat against ABS-CBN, and refrain from any action that puts undue pressure on the news broadcaster’s franchise renewal,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “The timing, tone, and content of this legal complaint makes it clear that this is not an administrative disagreement, but a political persecution.”
Calida’s petition claims that ABS-CBN used an “elaborately crafted corporate veil” to allow foreign investors to take ownership stakes in the media company, which is barred under Article XVI of the Philippine Constitution, the statement and reports said.
In a statement emailed to CPJ, ABS-CBN said it “did not violate the law” and that the solicitor general’s allegations were “without merit.” The broadcaster said that the petition “appears to be an effort to shut down ABS-CBN to the serious prejudice of millions of Filipinos who rely on the network for news, entertainment and public service.”
A factsheet published by the broadcaster, which CPJ reviewed, says that if Congress does not renew the company’s franchise by the close of its current session on March 11, it will lose its broadcasting license in early May and be forced to close down its nationwide stations.
Several bills requesting the network’s franchise renewal are pending in the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Duterte’s allies, according to news reports. The ABS-CBN factsheet says that Congress has not scheduled hearings on any of those bills.
Martin Andanar, secretary of the Presidential Communications Office, did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.