Duterte ‘completely neutral’ on ABS-CBN’s forced shutdown, says spokesman Roque

<i>Photo: President Rodriguo Duterte/ PCOO FB, ABS-CBN photo via Wikimedia Commons</i>
Photo: President Rodriguo Duterte/ PCOO FB, ABS-CBN photo via Wikimedia Commons

President Rodrigo Duterte is “completely neutral” on the issue of ABS-CBN’s shutdown, his spokesman Harry Roque said today in a television interview.

Read: BREAKING: NTC tells ABS-CBN to cease broadcast operations due to expired franchise

The spokesman said that the renewal of the media giant’s franchise is still up to the decision of the House of Representatives, whose leader, Taguig Congressman Alan Peter Cayetano, has accused ABS-CBN of interfering in the 2016 elections. Despite this, Cayetano told reporters last week that the legislative body supposedly had “no intention to shut down” the 73-year-old media company.

“To our congressmen, don’t worry, the president will neither be angry nor happy if you will grant ABS-CBN’s franchise. He is completely neutral. Vote as your conscience dictates,” Roque said in an interview with state-run station PTV.

Duterte had threatened to block the network’s franchise renewal after it allegedly failed to air his political ads during the 2016 elections. ABS-CBN has insisted that the president’s ads were broadcast nationally, but some did not appear in its local stations because they were submitted late. The station has nonetheless apologized to Duterte, and the president had accepted it.

The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) yesterday ordered the network to cease its broadcast operations after Solicitor-General Jose Calida warned them that they might be charged with graft if they grant ABS-CBN a temporary license to operate.

Read: NTC may face graft charges if it grants ABS-CBN provisional license, says SolGen Calida

ABS-CBN’s 25-year franchise was granted via Republic Act 7966, which expired on May 5. At least 11 bills have been filed which sought to grant a fresh franchise to the company, which remain pending before the House of Representatives.

Human rights and journalist groups have slammed the sudden closure, with Amnesty International calling it a “dark day for press freedom in the Philippines, reminiscent of martial law when the dictatorship seized control over news agencies.”

“Ordering ABS-CBN to stop its operations is an outrageous attack on media freedom,” the group added.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) likewise reiterated the need for freedom of the free press in its statement, saying, “mainstream media, particularly ABS-CBN, have been vital to combatting the virus of fake news and have been instrumental to giving the most neglected sectors in this health crisis a voice.”

NUJP also called for the welfare of the networks thousands of employees.

“Shutting down ABS-CBN and leaving 11,000 workers unemployed at a period of crisis serves no one. It serves only a dictatorship seeking to silence [the] truth.”

ABS-CBN’s news network has covered stories from Duterte’s bloody drug war and the long-running Marawi siege, to disputes in the West Philippine Sea.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) called out the sudden conflicting order to shut ABS-CBN down and urged Congress to act on the station’s franchise renewal.

In early March, NTC promised to give ABS-CBN provisional authority to operate while the media company waits for lawmakers to grant it a fresh 25-year franchise. A month prior, the Department of Justice said that ABS-CBN Corporation can still operate under “equity considerations” should the House of Representatives disapprove its license. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that such considerations are observed in the interest of fairness, and is applied in situations where there’s an apparent gap in the constitution.

Guevarra said that the country has no laws that fit the media company’s current predicament, whose lapsed franchise renewal remains neither approved or rejected.

“The order runs counter to weeks of seeming assurance from lawmakers and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra that a provisional license approved either by the NTC or by Congress would allow ABS-CBN to air,” FOCAP said.

“We urge Congress to independently act on pending measures seeking to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise. Our lawmakers must tackle these measures as soon as possible, and uphold the freedom of the press that the 1987 Constitution guarantees…We stand with ABS-CBN. We stand with press freedom,” it added.

The station’s forced shutdown took its 23 FM and AM radio stations and 42 TV stations off the air last night, including flagship TV station Channel 2, where ABS-CBN President Carlo Katigbak issued a statement before the station stopped broadcast.

“To our Kapamilya [family of viewers], if ABS-CBN has become important to you, we ask for your support to be able to keep the service that the station brings,” he said in English and Filipino.

“Most especially in this time of crisis in the Philippines and the whole world, in time of grave disease and hunger…we pray for the return of ABS-CBN, so we could continue providing service to your families and the Filipino people,” Katigbak added.

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