The Philippines is fast approaching a potential crisis. Not an economic crisis or an inevitable military conflict, but a crisis that threatens the democracy and personal liberties of the Filipino people. President Rodrigo Duterte has resolutely held the position of denying the popular news network ABS-CBN the ability to renew their contract, which would effectively terminate the network. This anti-media sentiment is not unique towards ABS-CBN and should not come as a surprise. Dating back to 2016, Duterte has consistently shown his discontent for ABS-CBN and the broader media at large. This discontent has now manifested itself again. Duterte is filing a motion in the Philippines’ Supreme Court to block the renewal of ABS-CBN’s television license on the grounds of illegal foreign investment. The current television contract expires on March 30th, 2020, but with Congress adjourning on March 11th, ABS-CBN has even less time than expected to renew their contract.
The attack on the press and more broadly, the freedom of speech, is a clear subversion of constitutional protections intended to inhibit exactly what Duterte is attempting to accomplish. The push back by reporters and journalists has been significant, leading to rallies. One was recently organized by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, who demonstrated their disapproval by meeting outside ABS-CBN headquarters in Quezon City, as reported by The Guardian.
Journalist Daniel Arao attempts to explain the broader goal of this move by Duterte. In an interview with Al Jazeera he says, “It wants to harass and intimidate a particular news media organization so that other news organizations will toe the line.” While this may be true, Duterte has filed the same motion against other news networks, such as Rappler in 2018, which suggests that Duterte is attempting to more broadly eliminate all alternative political ideals to obtain a monopoly on media control. As ABS-CBN is the most popular media network in the Philippines, Duterte would be taking a large step forward towards controlling the media if their license renewal continues to be blocked.
To better understand why this move is unsurprising, it is necessary to understand where Duterte’s anti-media sentiment originates. Duterte, who has been in office since 2016, seemingly began his formal disapproval of the media during his 2016 presidential campaign when ABS-CBN refused to air his political campaign ads. As mentioned previously, Duterte’s distaste for the media is not exclusive towards ABS-CBN.
News network Rappler garnered criticism when they began reporting on the Filipino war on drugs. The war was an effort spearheaded by Duterte, which has seen more than 6,000 Filipino people killed by December 31st, 2016, only 6 months after Duterte took office. These 6,000 persons killed for nonviolent crimes were accompanied by nearly 1,000,000 people imprisoned for the same drug offences. In their article reporting on the deaths and imprisonment, Rappler advocated for rehabilitation, not imprisonment. It was a clear criticism of Duterte’s policy. In response, Duterte filed the same motion against Rappler that he is currently using to threaten ABS-CBN. It was enforced and the news company is still appealing to regain their license.
Understanding how Duterte is trying to spin this claim against ABS-CBN is necessary. It shows just how egregious an attack on the Constitution that this is. Duterte claims that these various news networks are taking money from foreign entities illegally, which in Filipino law would give them a stake in the company, better understood as ownership. This then gives those foreign entities voting rights in the Philippines’. However, CNN Philippines writes that the foreign investment came through the form of Philippine Deposit Receipts. These differ from stocks and simply guarantee monetary returns to investors, not ownership, denying foreign investors Filipino voting rights. This completely contradicts the narrative that Duterte is trying to push, but due to the Solicitor General being a close ally to Duterte these false accusations can be legally acted on, leading to the suppression of Rappler and potentially ABS-CBN.
In my eyes this is the clearest preliminary attack on democracy that a president can execute. An independent media is an essential component of maintaining a free state, where people can express their opinion without fearing government reprisal. Duterte is eliminating all views that do not coincide with his own in a clear attempt to control the media, giving him an easy avenue to push propaganda to the Filipino people. His crafting of a narrative that criticizing him is punishable is alarming and especially volatile, possessing a clear potential to evolve into more dictatorial practices.