Watch­dogs de­nounce vote to close ma­jor TV net­work

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - WORLD - By Jim Gomez Jim Gomez is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

MANILA — Philip­pine law­mak­ers voted Fri­day to re­ject the li­cense re­newal of the coun­try’s largest TV net­work, shut­ting down a ma­jor news provider that had been re­peat­edly threat­ened by the pres­i­dent over its crit­i­cal cov­er­age.

In­ter­na­tional me­dia watch­dogs con­demned the clo­sure of ABS­CBN Corp., which was founded in 1953, as a ma­jor blow to press free­dom.

The House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives’ Com­mit­tee on Fran­chises voted 70­11 to re­ject a new 25­year li­cense for ABS­CBN. The Na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion had or­dered the broad­caster to shut down in May af­ter its old fran­chise ex­pired. It halted broad­cast­ing then, but the vote takes it off the air per­ma­nently.

Only the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, which is dom­i­nated over­whelm­ingly by Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte’s al­lies, can grant or re­voke such a fran­chise and the chance of any reversal of Fri­day’s rul­ing is ex­tremely low, law­mak­ers said.

The net­work, which used to be viewed daily on free chan­nels by mil­lions of Filipinos, has been able to con­tinue broad­cast­ing some of its TV and ra­dio news pro­grams over paid ca­ble chan­nels with only a small frac­tion of its for­mer mas­sive view­er­ship.

“We are deeply hurt,” ABS­CBN CEO Carlo Katig­bak said, but sug­gested the com­pany will try to find other ways to re­turn to busi­ness.

Duterte and his al­lies had ques­tioned the net­work’s com­pli­ance with the law and the terms of its fran­chise. The com­pany stead­fastly de­nied any wrong­do­ing in a month of tele­vised House hear­ings.

Hu­man Rights Watch said the law­mak­ers’ vote was “a griev­ous as­sault on press free­dom in the coun­try” and the great­est blow to me­dia free­dom caused by any gov­ern­ment act since late dic­ta­tor Fer­di­nand Mar­cos shut the broad­cast­ing gi­ant and other me­dia out­lets af­ter declar­ing mar­tial law in 1972.

“This move so­lid­i­fies the tyranny of Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte,” said Phil Robert­son, the deputy Asia direc­tor of the U.S.­based rights group.

Re­flect­ing the ex­tent of un­ease over the net­work’s shut­down, both the op­po­si­tion and sev­eral key Duterte al­lies ques­tioned ef­forts to close it. Con­cerns have also been raised by a di­verse range of groups, in­clud­ing top busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives, left­wing ac­tivists and Catholic Church of­fi­cials.

Me­dia watch­dogs ac­cuse Duterte and his gov­ern­ment of muz­zling in­de­pen­dent me­dia such as ABS­CBN that have re­ported crit­i­cally on is­sues in­clud­ing his drug crack­down, which has left thou­sands of mostly poor drug sus­pects dead. Duterte has ac­cused the net­work of not air­ing his paid cam­paign ads and fa­vor­ing a ri­val can­di­date in the 2016 elec­tion, al­le­ga­tions the com­pany de­nied.

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