The congressional vote against the Philippines’ largest broadcaster going back on-air and the conviction of prominent journalist, Maria Ressa, for “cyber libel” are direct attacks on independent media and a huge blow to press freedom in the Philippines.
ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal rejected

“This is a black day for media freedom” in the Philippines, said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, as an overwhelming majority of the country’s Lower House Committee voted against the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise license on 10 July.

Seventy panel members of the House Committee on Legislative Franchises voted against the renewal of the broadcaster’s license calling it “undeserving of the grant of legislative franchise”; only eleven congressmen voted in favour. The vote followed the final deliberations regarding ABS-CBN’s new franchise application, which was heard by the Committee on 9 July.


In a statement, ABS-CBN Chairman, Mark Lopez, shared appreciation for all the support the broadcast network received to keep it on-air. He said:

“Today is a sad day for the entire ABS-CBN family and for the millions of Filipinos who are hoping for our return on-air. This is not the outcome we have hoped for, but we remain grateful that we were able to participate in the process and clear the issues raised against ABS-CBN…”

He added, “Now, more than ever, we feel proud of our company. We are proud of everyone who helped us serve the Filipinos through the years.”

Since the “cease and desist” order by the government-backed National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to take the Philippines’ largest broadcaster off-air after its franchise license expired on 4 May, ABS-CBN’s fight to continue operating has been confronted with a suspended temporary franchise bill as well as allegations of foreign ownership, tax evasion, unfair election coverage and poor working conditions.

For many, the franchise rejection is seen as the latest in a long line of attacks under President Duterte’s administration, whose hostility towards ABS-CBN seems to stem from the broadcaster’s decision not to air his political advertisements during the 2016 presidential campaign. Other candidates’ ads were also unaired and ABS-CBN refunded the money that Duterte spent.

“This is a black day for media freedom” – Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch

Some artists, employees and managers agreed to pay cuts following the two-month shutdown, during which ABS-CBN recorded a loss of P30-55 million daily. Now, the livelihoods of some 11,000 employees – including ABS-CBN’s subsidiaries – are at risk in the midst of a global pandemic.

The most trusted source of news and information in the country is also being stifled at a time when the Filipino public rely on it most. It’s 21 radios and 38 television stations reach approximately 70% of the entire population, according to ABS-CBN.

“Although a commercial operation, ABS-CBN is very similar to the British Broadcasting Corporation. With more than 70 years of TV and radio history, it has shaped the Filipino psyche with entertainment and news programmes for all of the family”, explains Howard Johnson, the BBC’s Philippines correspondent.

“Although a commercial operation, ABS-CBN is very similar to the British Broadcasting Corporation. With more than 70 years of TV and radio history, it has shaped the Filipino psyche with entertainment and news programmes for all of the family.” – Howard Johnson, Philippines Correspondent, BBC

ABS-CBN can appeal the decision. However, “pressure from leadership” makes success unlikely, says Human Rights Lawyer and Congress member, Edcel Lagman. The NTC could also re-allocate ABS-CBN’s frequency, which means that re-applying for a new franchise will be redundant without it.

According to Rappler, the worst case scenario is that ABS-CBN will remain off-air until at least 2022, when Duterte ends his term in office – assuming that he abides by the official terms of presidency.

Read more: Scenarios: What happens to ABS-CBN franchise after House panel vote? (Rappler)

Last week, the NTC also imposed a “cease-and-desist” order on ABS-CBN subsidiary Sky Cable Corp. In a statement against this proposed shutdown, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said:

“It is clear that the end goal of this administration is not only to shut down ABS-CBN but to send a message throughout the media industry that other news organizations may face the same fate unless they surrender their watchdog role, the critical and independent reportage that is an essential part of the media’s mission. This must not go unchallenged…”


The 15 June marked a further attack on independent media in the Philippines when Maria Ressa, Editor-in-Chief and Founder of news website Rappler, was convicted of “cyber libel” alongside her colleague, Reynaldo Santos Jr, for an article that was published four months prior to the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act was even enacted.

Both Ressa and Santos have been released on bail pending their appeal but the pair could be facing prison sentences of up to six years if their appeal is lost. Ressa also faces six other charges, which could see her imprisoned for almost 100 years in total.

Read more: Conviction of Maria Ressa is a further attack on press freedom in the Philippines

In a recent exclusive conversation with Maria Ressa organised by PBS Frontline and ICFJ two days before the conviction, Ressa explained that state-based attacks and Facebook disinformation were some of the “co-morbidities of press freedom in the Philippines”. She added that “Facebook has broken democracy in the Philippines” and has become “the enabler of lies.”

Media freedom advocacy organisations have continued to pledge their support for Ressa and to protect independent media in the Philippines. Just last week, sixty press freedom advocates, civil society organisations and other media practitioners united to form the #Holdtheline campaign. Led by RSF, CPJ and IFCJ, the coalition launched a petition calling for public support to help their campaign.

A letter signed by Members of the European Parliament highlighted serious concerns that Ressa’s conviction”sends a strong message to journalists that critical reporting risks imprisonment.” They called on President Duterte to drop all charges.

The Anti-Terror law

In other developments, Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act 2020 last week. Anyone found guilty of committing offences under the law can face an arrest without a warrant and potentially life imprisonment without parole.

Discussing the new law, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, Nicholas Bequelin, said that:

“Under Duterte’s presidency, even the mildest government critics can be labelled terrorists…This administration has effectively crafted a new weapon to brand and hound any perceived enemies of the state. In the prevailing climate of impunity, a law so vague on the definition of ‘terrorism’ can only worsen attacks against human rights defenders.”

For a landscape that was once considered a “bastion” of press freedom in South East Asia – press freedom is meant to be guaranteed in the Philippine’s constitution – these latest attacks set yet another chilling precedent for human rights, freedom of speech, critical reporting and democracy in the country.

The Public Media Alliance urges the Duterte administration to allow journalists to hold power to account and ensure that independent, public interest media continues to serve the needs of the public during the global pandemic and beyond.

The Public Media Alliance are among the sixty founding members of the #HoldTheLine campaign, launched by RSF, CPJ and ICFJ to support Maria Ressa, Rappler and independent media under attack in the Philippines. Find out more.

You can show your support by signing this petition on the RSF website.

Header Image: Black and white noise on a TV screen with no signal, also called TV snow. Credit: axstokes/istock