The Philippine government faced a heavy backlash Wednesday for shutting down the nation’s largest broadcaster, with critics saying the ABS-CBN network was an important news source during the coronavirus pandemic, as authorities reported that infections had surged past 10,000.
The Philippines reached the milestone a day after the spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte said that the COVID-19 curve had “begun to flatten.” Duterte had criticized ABS-CBN, a television, radio and online network, over its unrelenting reporting of his administration’s much-maligned drug war.
Critics said the forced closure of the television, radio and online network could undermine the government’s efforts to control the deadly virus, because ABS-CBN’s massive audience reach had helped save lives by disseminating information related to the pandemic.
“Closing down ABS-CBN costs lives, on top of unnecessarily burdening the thousands who will lose their jobs,” Vice President Leni Robredo, the opposition leader who has had her differences with Duterte, said in a statement.
The network’s programs went off the air Tuesday after its 25-year franchise license expired and telecoms regulators ordered the media giant to cease operations. Congress, the government branch with the authority to issue a new license, sat for more than three years on an application to renew the network’s franchise.
The shutdown of ABS-CBN likely will cause coronavirus cases to rise even more, said Congressman Joey Salceda, citing research done by his team.
“Essentially this thing will cost us 2,600 more infections,” Salceda, an ally of the Duterte administration, said over the ANC cable news channel. “In short, it has a direct impact on something that we’re trying to deal with, so it is an existential threat to the country.”
The Malacañang Press Corps, an association of dozens of reporters who regularly cover the presidential palace, condemned the TV network’s shutdown as a “shameless and blatant attack on press freedom.”
“The confluence of events shows us that this is an orchestrated attack in part against ABS-CBN, and on the whole, an attack against press freedom by agents of the government,” the group said in a statement. It did not elaborate.
Rights groups as well as press organizations in Asia and elsewhere also questioned the shutdown of the network, which has more than 11,000 employees.
Human Rights Watch called it a “despotic move” to silence a media firm.
The New York-based watchdog viewed the development with “deep concern,” said Phil Robertson, its deputy director for Asia.
“This also comes at the worst possible time, when the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging countries like the Philippines and when accurate and truthful information is needed crucially,” he said in a statement.
Secretary Carlito Galvez, head of the government’s COVID-19 taskforce, declined to wade into legal matters against ABS-CBN, but he underscored that the media had been a great help in publicizing “information on our new normal.”
“We have seen that ABS-CBN’s impact on our information campaign for our citizens has really been big,” Galvez told reporters Wednesday.
ABS-CBN was ordered to go off the air by the National Telecommunications Commission, a regulatory panel, because its license, which expired Monday, had not been renewed by Congress, as required by law.
The network shut down its operations two days after United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told an online dialogue that journalists are key to countering the “dangerous outbreak of misinformation” accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic.
Guterres highlighted the importance of impartial news media at a time when harmful health advice, hate speech and wild conspiracy theories are rising, and “blatant lies” are being spread online at a dizzying rate.
“The antidote to this pandemic of misinformation is fact-based news and analysis. It depends on media freedom and independent reporting,” he said.
ABS-CBN was one of two Filipino media companies that Duterte had publicly ridiculed in his speeches for their unflinching coverage of his drug war, which has left an estimated 6,000 dead since he took office in mid-2016.
The other one, online news site Rappler, whose foreign investors were earlier forced to transfer their shares to their Filipino partners after they came under attack from the president, who claimed they were controlled by foreign agents. Its chief executive, Maria Ressa, however, faces several court cases that she has branded as harassment.
‘We need to revive the economy’
On Wednesday, the Department of Health confirmed 320 new coronavirus cases and 21 deaths, taking the nation’s cumulative tally to 10,004 with a death toll of 658 and 1,506 recoveries. Among those with infections were 1,859 health workers, who were under quarantine while being treated, the department said.
The day before, presidential spokesman Harry Roque pronounced that the government was seeing a flattening of infection rates, as he hinted that a regionwide coronavirus lockdown may not be extended beyond May 15.
Roque said the government was taking all things into consideration, as he emphasized that the already weakening economy needed a “shot in the arm” amid the crisis.
“Remember, it is a confluence of how fast the disease spreads and the government’s capacity to provide care to the economy. That is what we are looking for,” he told reporters Tuesday, noting that “we need to revive the economy.”
“In a way, we can say it has begun to flatten,” Roque said, referring to how the daily numbers of new confirmed cases were not as high as in previous weeks.
With most businesses now shut for more than a month, mainly in the main Luzon Island and other major cities, the country’s overall trade has taken a beating, with total merchandise trade dropping to about U.S. $11.44 billion in March – its lowest level in two years, government figures show.
The number was about 26 percent lower than the $15.4 billion recorded in the same period last year, with both exports and imports registering significant drops, according to the state’s economic planning office.
“Merchandise trade may recover in 2021, but this will depend on how fast we can contain the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its economic impact through government polices to support affected industries and workers,” socio-economic planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua said in a statement Wednesday.