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'It's Unbelievable': Shutdown Of Philippines' Major Broadcaster Worries Many


Dozens of television and radio stations went silent in the Philippines this week when government regulators ordered a media giant to stop work. Critics blame President Rodrigo Duterte for carrying out a political vendetta against the broadcaster at a time when millions rely on it for news about the coronavirus. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Forcing media behemoth ABS-CBN off the air is breathtaking in its scale, says Philippine Senator Francis Pangilinan.

FRANCIS PANGILINAN: It's unbelievable in the sense that it's like closing down, perhaps in the U.S. setting, The New York Times.

MCCARTHY: Pangilinan calls the closure of one of the country's oldest media houses an arbitrary exercise of power to stifle dissent. Political commentator Richard Heydarian says blocking the broadcaster is just bad policy during a pandemic.

RICHARD HEYDARIAN: It's part of their daily life. And especially now when everyone is stuck at home, the last thing you want is to take away the popcorn. If this were not coronavirus days, you would have had some element of protest on the street, but you're not going to see that.

MCCARTHY: The giant media house is the first major broadcaster to be driven off the air by President Duterte's administration, which has clamped down on the media outlets critical of his leadership, especially his bloody drug war. Human Rights Watch says it has claimed over 27,000 lives. Phil Robertson, the group's deputy director for Asia, says ABS-CBN rigorously reported illegal killings.

PHIL ROBERTSON: And they were saying very clearly that it looks like this person was killed in an extrajudicial killing. And by calling it straight, they earned the ire of President Duterte, who wants lapdogs and loyalists, rather than independent media raising issues that he doesn't want to respond to.

MCCARTHY: ABS-CBN is owned by the Lopez family, one of the country's richest. Attacking their media holdings is an affront to an independent press but also to the so-called imperial elites in whose hands Philippine power and wealth are concentrated. Heydarian says Duterte ran for president vowing to wrest that power away.

HEYDARIAN: And the idea is that, I am the president here. And I represent the dignity and the power of the state. The state is the ultimate arbiter of politics in this country. So let me remind you and put you in your right place.

MCCARTHY: ABS-CBN's 25-year franchise expired on Monday. It's common practice to grant a grace period, but the next day, the government issued a cease and desist order. Pangalinan says senators were stunned. The shutdown reneged on government assurances that no action would be taken against the company's 42 television and 23 radio stations pending its franchise renewal. He says the about-face was classic Duterte.

PANGILINAN: The difficulty with this president is that he rarely means what he says and rarely says what he means. He likes to stay unpredictable.

MCCARTHY: Heydarian says public pressure to halt the shutdown could force a vote in the House of Representatives on a franchise. He's less worried about whether the media giant will reopen and more about whether this move will chill the broader media landscape. If someone as big as ABS-CBN can go down...

HEYDARIAN: You won't be surprised if some people get this message that everyone is vulnerable. Maybe it's time to, a little bit, zip your lip.

MCCARTHY: ABS-CBN has asked the Supreme Court to allow it to broadcast. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.