MANILA: The Philippines' telecoms body ordered the country's leading broadcaster ABS-CBN Corp to cease operations on Tuesday (May 5), as a parliament dominated by President Rodrigo Duterte's loyalists dragged its feet over renewing its license.
Duterte has 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 commercials.
Opposition lawmakers described the order for the channel to suspend operations as "ill-timed" given the need to inform the public in the battle against the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
It appeared the broadcaster would get its renewal after it publically apologised to Duterte earlier this year, and the justice minister said the licence was considered extended until Congress took action.
But there has been a lingering threat in the form of a case filed in the nation's top court by the government's lawyer Jose Calida, which sought ABS-CBN's immediate closure.
The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the case, and Calida has warned it was unlawful for the broadcaster to operate after its licence expired.
In a statement, ABS-CBN said it will stop operations on Tuesday evening to comply with the order from the National Telecommunications Commission, while also imploring lawmakers in Congress, the lower house of parliament, to renew its franchise, which expired on May 4.
"We trust that the government will decide on our franchise with the best interest of the Filipino people in mind, recognising ABS-CBN's role and efforts in providing the latest news and information during these challenging times," the channel said in a statement.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the government was grateful for the broadcaster's service, but ABS-CBN's fate lay with the Congress.
The channel also said it had been given assurances that it could carry on broadcasting while the bills to extend its franchise still lay with the Congress.
Yet, NTC Deputy Commissioner Edgardo Cabarios said that the order for the channel stop operations took immediate effect, but added that ABS-CBN could appeal through the courts. The regulator also gave ABS-CBN 10 days to respond and explain why frequencies assigned to it should not be recalled.
ABS-CBN, a 66-year-old entertainment and media conglomerate, employs nearly 7,000 people, operates radio and television stations nationwide and distributes online content.
"This is a very serious blow to press freedom in the Philippines," said Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch. "It's hard to think that Duterte doesn't have anything to do with this."
Antonio Albano, vice-chairman of the lower chamber's committee on legislative franchises, said Congress will order the telecoms body to explain its action.
"We are up in arms against this," Albano told DZMM, adding that only Congress can grant or revoke franchise.
An opposition senator said the closure of the channel undermined the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 9,600 people in the Philippines, and killed more than 600.
"This shutdown order goes against public welfare," Senator Risa Hontiveros said in a statement.