With the cease and desist order of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) on the operations of ABS-CBN, the Duterte administration is exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to advance its authoritarian agenda and consolidate its hold on power. The government is using the repressive atmosphere of the military lockdown to further narrow political space in the country.
ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest broadcast network, has long resisted pressure to blindly follow the government’s preferred propaganda narrative. The NTC’s irregular order against ABS-CBN is an audacious attack on press freedom. Worse, it is part of a general attack on critical voices and thinking among mass media outfits and civil society. The administration has been attacking the press since coming to power.
The Philippines is in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic-driven public health and economic crisis. It is more important than ever for the public to have access to as much information as possible about the people’s real health and economic situation. The corporate and alternative mass media play vital roles in checking the information that government releases and the narrative it frames.
Congress has jurisdiction on franchise renewal but has avoided hearings on this. Meanwhile, there are clear precedents for ABS-CBN, whose latest franchise is 25 years-old, to be given provisional authority to operate. The government order to cease operations is clearly politically motivated and the Duterte administration aiming to control the information environment for its narrow agenda.
The pandemic is a real problem, but so is the Duterte administration’s using this for its own authoritarian ends.