The ICJ today denounced the decision on 5 May 2020 by the Philippines’ National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to issue an order to ABS CBN Corporation, one of the leading media outlets in the country, to cease its on-air operations.
The ICJ asserted that the action against ABS CBN violates the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes the rights of the media to operate without censorship or restraint and the public’s right to access information. This right is guaranteed under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Poliitical Rights (ICCPR). The Philippines is a State Party to the ICCPR.
“A free and unhindered media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression and other human rights. It is one of the cornerstones of a democratic society,” said Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s Senior International Legal Adviser.
The NTC’s basis for issuing the order is that ABS CBN’s legislative franchise has expired on 4 May 2020 and action has yet to be taken on its renewal by the House of Representatives. The ICJ fears that the reasons for this delay may be politically motivated.
Given the stakes for freedom of expression, the ICJ urges NTC to follow its own precedents whereby it has allowed broadcast and telecommunications companies to operate beyond their franchise expiry dates, pending the renewal.
“Limitations imposed on the right to freedom of opinion and expression have to pass the general tests, including that of necessity and proportionality, which do not appear to have been met here,” Gil added.
The action taken against ABS CBN is part of a pattern of harassment of independent media by governmental authorities in the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte has, in the past, expressed resentment towards ABS CBN for allegedly refusing to air his political ads when he ran for office in 2016. The network is also known to have aired views critical of his administration’s murderous ‘war on drugs’.
In December 2019, President Duterte said that he would make sure that ABS CBN’s franchise would not be renewed. This is not the first time that he has sought to silence a media outlet critical of his administration.
There are at least 11 bills seeking the renewal of the franchise currently pending at the House of Representatives, with the earliest filed in July 2019.
“It is taking the House of Representatives an inordinately long period of time to approve the renewal of ABS CBN’s franchise,” said Gil. “It appears that the allies of this administration in the House are holding the franchise renewal like a sword over ABS CBN’s head to chill it from airing critical views about the government.”
The UN Human Rights Committee, the ICCPR’s supervisory body, has said that States must avoid imposing onerous licensing conditions on broadcast media, and that the criteria for the application of these conditions should be reasonable, objective, clear, transparent, and non-discriminatory.
This action against ABS CBN comes in the middle of the state of public health emergency in the Philippines when access to information is vital in the country’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. The ICJ had earlier raised its concerns on abuses occurring during the lockdown in the Philippines.
The ICJ calls on the Philippine government to uphold and respect freedom of opinion and expression, and ensure that a free press can operate without censorship or restraint.
The ICJ also reminds the government that the public’s access to information is vital to ensure public health and safety during the COVID-19 crisis.
Emerlynne Gil, Senior International Legal Adviser, t: +662 619 8477 (ext. 206) or e: emerlynne.gil(a)icj.orgNewsPress releases