A NEW TELEVISION drama takes hold of the Philippines. Its protagonists include ABS-CBN, a giant broadcaster, and President Rodrigo Duterte. The story begins in 2016, when ABS-CBN did not run announcements supporting Mr. Duterte’s campaign for president, noting that others had reserved slots first. He has held a grudge ever since, compounded by the network’s overwhelming reports of his bloody drug campaign. Things reached a critical point on May 5. The National Television Commission (NTC), a regulator, ordered the broadcaster to cease operations immediately. It was broadcast at 7:52 p.m. that day. (Its cable news channel and digital offerings are still available.)
The reason given for NTCThe order expired a day earlier from the media group’s 25-year broadcasting franchise. Solicitor General José Calida took it upon himself on May 3 to warn the NTC do not grant ABS-CBN any temporary permission to stay on the air while Congress, which is brimming with supporters of the president, plans to renew its franchise. (Lawmakers have been sitting on bills to do so since July.) Mr. Calida has a big role in the drama. In February, he filed an application with the Supreme Court to revoke the franchise of the chain because of his “very abusive practices”.
A spokesperson for Duterte says he is “completely neutral” as to whether Congress should renew the broadcaster’s franchise. the NTC, he added, made his decision independently. This contrasts with the President’s own statements regarding ABS-CBN. In December, he said, “I’m sorry. I’ll make sure you’re out.”
Press freedom watchdogs scream, but the president doesn’t care. Journalists are “sons of bitches,” he says. Other media have also suffered since he came to power. Rappler, an information site, and its boss, Maria Ressa, face charges of tax evasion and cyber-defamation which, according to observers, are politically motivated. But ABS-CBN is a much bigger career: he is the most watched broadcaster in the country and the creator of the most popular news program in Tagalog, the most spoken language of the Philippines. “This decision is clearly a case of political harassment against a pillar of Filipino democracy,” said the Association of Foreign Correspondents of the Philippines. This does not seem to count the president, unfortunately as a pillar. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Empty Screen”