• NTC shuts down ABS-CBN, in Philippines
  • Displaces 11k employees
  • Employees to receive 3 months worth of salary and benefits
  • Personalities, groups condemn violation of press freedom amid pandemic
  • ABS-CBN previously threatened with non-renewal of license

The jobs of 11,000 employees lay in peril as ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest media network, was ordered shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued a "Cease and Desist" order to the media network after, allegedly, President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies in the Congress refused to renew the franchise’s 25-year license to operate, Al Jazeera reported.

The NTC is a government agency who that gives out broadcasting licenses and in this situation has told to ABS-CBN to stop its television and radio operations due to the May 4 expiration of its license to operate.

The agency’s Deputy Commissioner Edgardo Cabarios said in an interview with ABS-CBN’s radio station, DZMM, that the order was “immediately executory” and Menardo Guevarra, the Department of Justice Secretary, affirmed the legal opinion.

The NTC said that they gave the station 10 days to file its response after which, a hearing will be scheduled as soon as the emergency lockdown on the country’s capital city, Metro Manila, and other areas in the Philippines is lifted.

Meanwhile, ABS-CBN talent, personality and television host Bianca Gonzales tweeted that during a live chat between the networks employees and bosses following the station’s final broadcast, the network allegedly promised to give three months’ worth of salary and benefits to the employees.

Different personalities in the Philippines spoke out against the order for the sake of the retrenchment of 11,000 workers and artists.

Senate Committee on Public Services Chair Grace Poe said that despite the slowed and stoppage of operations amid the pandemic, the network’s employees still rely on ABS-CBN’s payroll, ABS-CBN News reported.

"Many will lose that benefit of having support while there is no work,” Poe said. “They [NTC] order a shut down now that many have no jobs? At least they [employees] are being taken care of by the company, not just depending on the government."

Senate Labor Committee Joel Villanueva also shared his sentiments over the order.

"To issue this [order] in times of COVID-19, when people need jobs to survive the pandemic is just heartless considering congressional hearings have shown that the station has not violated any law to justify none extension of franchise," Villanueva said in a statement.

On Sunday, Duterte’s Solicitor-General Jose Calida, who is also a top government lawyer, issued a statement warning the NTC of prosecution lest it carried out the order, saying that there is no legal basis to give the company a provisional license as it awaited approval from Congress.

He said that the NTC does not have any power to grant such license to the network as per Philippine Constitution and that it’s the Congress who has the exclusive powers to do so.

"Although this legislative power may be delegated to administrative agencies through a law, at present, there is no such law giving the NTC or any other agency the power to grant franchises to broadcasting entities,” he said.

Calida previously filed a quo warranto petition against the network before the Supreme Court for allegedly using a corporate veil to hide foreign ownership which, according to Philippine law is a violation, the Inquirer reported.

There had also been issues of the network being involved in tax evasion cases but the country’s Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) stated that the networks taxes are all paid and accounted for and they did not commit any violations on that aspect, CNN Philippines reported.

The network was also known to have provoked the ire of President Duterte, especially during his Presidential Campaign in 2016 when ABS-CBN reportedly failed to air the then Davao City mayor’s campaign advertisements worth 117 million pesos, in addition to airing an “anti-Duterte” advertisement, the Inquirer reported.

ABS-CBN President Carlo Katigbak clarified the issue and apologized to the president saying that they just abided by the laws and regulations that surround the airing of the anti-Duterte advertisements paid for by former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV due to the Fair Election Act that considers advertisements against a candidate to be lawful election propaganda and that the network does not have its own political agenda.

Katigbak added that regarding the issue of the unaired advertisements, he said that the station aired all of the 117 million pesos worth of national political advertisements during the 2016 Philippine elections but it had not aired all of the advertisements for provincial and regional areas.

The network had also extensively covered the president’s campaign against drugs which also earned the administration’s distaste.

There had been occasions where the president threatened to block the renewal of the network’s franchise and suggested that the owners should sell the network.

Many personalities denounced the order and condemned the shutdown of the station amid the coronavirus pandemic to be a violation of press freedom and a threat to democracy.

Congress member Arlene Brosas said in a speech at the House of Representatives on Tuesday that the order is a “brazen clamp down of the freedom of the press” Al Jazeera reported.

Danilo Arao, Journalism Professor at the University of the Philippines said: “This closure order is clearly an attack on press freedom and we should confront this head on. The administration should be exposed as the real enemy of press freedom."

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said in a statement on Tuesday that it is a “dastardly move” of the President’s administration to shut down the network.

"It sends a clear message: What Duterte wants, Duterte gets,” the statement said. “And it is clear, with this brazen move to shut down ABS-CBN, that he intends to silence the critical media and intimidate everyone else into submission."

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) also issued a statement saying the move "is clearly a case of political harassment against a pillar of the Philippine democracy”, Al Jazeera reported.

ABS-CBN, the top broadcaster in the Philippines, has been ordered off the air, sparking fears about press freedom
ABS-CBN, the top broadcaster in the Philippines, has been ordered off the air, sparking fears about press freedom AFP / Ted ALJIBE