Philippine broadcaster fights order to shut down

FILE PHOTO: A man runs outside the ABS-CBN network headquarters where candles are lit following government orders to cease its operations, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

The Philippines’ biggest broadcaster asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to quash an order by the telecoms regulator to shut down its operations, saying it undermined freedom of speech and the public right to information.

The regulator’s order for ABS-CBN Corp to cease operations after its 25-year license expired has prompted allegations by critics of President Rodrigo Duterte that his allies are trying to intimidate the media.

The president repeatedly threatened to block the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise after the channel angered him during the 2016 presidential election by refusing to air his campaign commercial.

“The continued operation of ABS-CBN is a matter of public interest and transcendental importance, it being among the largest broadcasting entities in terms of coverage and audience,” the company said.

ABS-CBN Corp also asked the Supreme Court to hear its petition quickly, saying the livelihood of thousands of its employees and their families were at stake.

The 66-year-old entertainment and media conglomerate, said in it its petition that it employs 11,000 people.

It also operates 21 radio and 38 television stations nationwide and distributes online content. It went off air on Tuesday to comply with the regulator’s order, to widespread dismay from labor, business and media groups and opposition lawmakers.

“To close ABS-CBN now when it is most needed would certainly be detrimental to the public,” it said. “ABS-CBN cannot be closed without compromising the fundamental guarantees of freedom of speech and the press.”

ABS-CBN said the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) abused its discretion when it ordered its closure even after it indicated in March the broadcasting company could remain on air pending its license renewal. ABS-CBN’s 25-year congressional franchise expired on May 4.

“The NTC’s bad faith, malice and underhandedness are simply shocking and abhorrent,” ABS-CBN said.

The NTC was not immediately available for comment. The regulator said on Wednesday it stood by its decision and that ABS-CBN could seek a temporary restraining order from a court.

Several bills extending ABC-CBN’s license have been pending as a parliament dominated by Duterte’s loyalists dragged its feet over renewing its franchise.

ABS-CBN had apologised for what happened during the 2016 election campaign and the president’s office said the mercurial leader no longer had an axe to grind with the station, despite past grievances.

“Even if the president would wish to give them a franchise, under the constitution, only Congress has the power to grant it,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said on Thursday.

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