Fears for press freedom as Duterte shuts broadcaster

ABS-CBN is an institution in the Philippines. (Photo: Paul Papadimitriou/Flickr)

Journalists in Australia have rallied behind their Filipino counterparts after the government of Rodrigo Duterte shut down the country’s leading broadcast network ABS-CBN.

Philippines President Duterte’s allies in Congress refused to renew the station’s 25-year-licence in an announcement last week.

The National Telecommunications Commission ordered the network to stop operating after its license expired on May 5. The network’s application for a renewal had been pending in Congress and hearings delayed due to the lockdown.

The Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom (AJF) denounced the decision and called on the government to re-open ABS-CBN and ensure press freedom in the Philippines.

Peter Greste, director of AJF, said: “Governments have a responsibility to maintain their democratic and social systems. A free media plays an essential role within that.

“Lack of a free media makes democracy vulnerable, fractures society and undermines trust in institutions – especially in government.”

He emphasised the importance of society’s access to reliable information at times of crisis for it to cope and respond.

Anumang pagsubok ang harapin, isang Pamilya tayo sa Panalangin. Ngayong 6pm, let's all be united in faith at manalangin para sa ABS-CBN. Sama-sama tayo. Livestream at https://www.facebook.com/ABSCBNnetwork

Posted by ABS-CBN on Thursday, 7 May 2020

The decision by the government has shocked many Filipinos and was a reminder of events in 1972, when the same network was forced to go off the air under dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ administration when martial law was declared.

Government officials denied the closure was a press freedom issue, insisting that everyone must comply with the law.

“If he can shut down a media outfit as influential and powerful as ABS-CBN, then no independent media group is safe. The message is clear.”

Margaret Simmons, an Australian freelance journalist and author, said: “In the Australian context, this is as though the government had moved to close down Nine, or the ABC.

“It is a step change in Duterte’s actions against a free media, and I believe a turning point in the history of the Philippines and its fragile democracy.”

Ms Simmons, who has worked with many media professionals in the Philippines and has talked to frightened journalists in the last few days, added: “They need us to speak up.”

Shawn Crispin, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Hatch: “If he can shut down a media outfit as influential and powerful as ABS-CBN, then no independent media group is safe. The message is clear.”

Main picture by Paul Papadimitriou/Flickr, creative commons licence.