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Philippine TV News Giant Petitions Supreme Court to Resume Operations

Employees of ABS-CBN and members of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines rally to show support for the broadcaster in Manila, Philippines, May 5, 2020. The broadcaster was ordered off the air over a stalled operating licence renewal.

A leading television and radio network in the Philippines has asked the country's Supreme Court to allow it to resume broadcasting after the government ordered it to cease operations, sparking accusations the move was an assault on independent media.

ABS-CBN Corp. told the court that Tuesday’s shutdown order has stifled press freedom at a time when information is especially needed during the coronavirus crisis.

“The public needs the services of ABS-CBN, now more than ever, as the country grapples with the effects of COVID-19,” the broadcaster said in its petition to the court.

The National Telecommunications Commission said Tuesday it ordered ABS-CBN Corp., which frequently criticized President Rodrigo Duterte, to stop operating on the grounds that its 25-year license expired May 4.

Some legislators and media watchdogs have also denounced the order.

Opposition senator and former justice secretary Franklin Drilon maintained the order violated the constitution was a "grave abuse of discretion."

Media watchdogs have accused the Duterte administration of silencing independent media organizations that have produced unfavorable reports of Dutere’s actions and polices, including his deadly anti-drugs campaign that has resulted in the deaths of primarily poor suspects.

Duterte threatened to prevent ABS-CBN’s franchise application and accused the network of favoring a political rival in the 2016 election.

Areas of the Philippines have been on strict lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Last month, President Duterte warned citizens during a televised address that police would “shoot them dead” if they defied the lockdown orders.

The network’s renewal application is pending in Congress but the massive coronavirus lockdown has contributed in a delay in hearings. The commission’s order was a reversal of its assurance to lawmakers that it would grant the network a temporary license to remain on the air pending the approval process.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte is neutral on the closure, but Solicitor-General Jose Calida warned the commissioners they could face criminal charges if they allowed the network to remain operational without a license.

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development Executive Director Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu said on Tuesday the order is “another attack against press freedom in the Philippines, at a time when access to information is most vital.”

She also decried Solicitor-General Jose Calida’s request in February that the Supreme Court invalidate the television network’s franchises and a subsidiary in another attempt to halt the company’s operations for supposedly violating the country’s prohibition on foreign ownership of Philippine media outlets and abusing its franchises.

“It is particularly concerning that the pressure to close down the network comes from the country's Solicitor General, who threatened to prosecute the NTC should ABS-CBN be granted a provisional license,” Shamini said. “The Department of Justice and several legislators had earlier recommended the granting of a provisional license, pending Congress' decision on franchise renewal.”

ABS-CBN, founded in 1953, was last shut down during the reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The network resumed broadcast operations after the Marcos government was overthrown in 1986.