Philippines orders top broadcaster to halt operations

ABS-CBN, the top broadcaster in the Philippines, has been ordered off the air, sparking fears about press freedom (AFP Photo/Ted ALJIBE)
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The Philippines' top broadcaster ABS-CBN on Tuesday was ordered off the air over a stalled operating licence renewal, drawing fresh charges that authorities were cracking down on press freedom.

Since running afoul of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, the media powerhouse has seen bills to extend its franchise languish in Congress as the leader repeatedly attacked ABS-CBN in speeches.

Duterte is notorious for tangling with media outlets critical of his policies, sparking concern that press freedoms are under threat in the Philippines.

ABS-CBN's 25-year licence expired Monday, but officials had previously given assurances the radio, TV and internet goliath would be allowed to operate provisionally.

However, the National Telecommunications Commission's cease-and-desist order cited the expiration and gave the outfit's operators a chance to explain why it should be allowed to keep broadcasting.

ABS-CBN did not immediately issue a public comment, but its programming remained on air Tuesday evening.

Early in his term, Duterte accused the network of failing to air his 2016 campaign advertisements and not returning the payments.

Bills to renew the broadcaster's franchise have sat for years in the legislature, which is controlled by Duterte's allies.

Press advocates said the order was an assault on the right to free speech.

"This is a very serious blow to press freedom in the Philippines," said Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch. "It's hard to think that Duterte doesn't have anything to do with this."

It appeared the broadcaster would get its renewal after it publically apologised to Duterte earlier this year, and the justice minister said the licence was considered extended until Congress took action.

But there has been a lingering threat in the form of a case filed in the nation's top court by the government's lawyer Jose Calida, which sought ABS-CBN's immediate closure.

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the case, and Calida has warned it was unlawful for the broadcaster to operate after its licence expired.

Several major media outlets in the Philippines have battled with Duterte and then suffered the consequences.

Journalist Maria Ressa faces years behind bars in a case that she and press advocates say was retaliation for the journalism of her website Rappler.

Rappler, which has published stories critical of Duterte's administration, is also battling a government closure effort.

Both Rappler and ABS-CBN stand accused of violating a constitutional ban on foreign ownership of mass media outlets. They refute the allegations.

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