Philippines moves to cancel top broadcaster's franchise

Philippine government lawyers moved on Monday to strip the nation's biggest media group of its franchise in what campaigners branded another attack on press freedom under President Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte has repeatedly pledged to stop the broadcast operations of ABS-CBN and expressed anger over its reporting during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

A petition filed with the nation's top court alleges ABS-CBN violated the restriction imposed by the constitution on foreign ownership of mass media by allowing overseas investors to join the company.

"We want to put an end to what we discovered to be highly abusive practices by ABS-CBN," Solicitor-General Jose Calida said in a statement.

"A franchise is a special privilege granted by the state, and should be restricted only to entities which faithfully adhere to our constitution and laws," he added.

Duterte early in his term accused the network, whose franchise expires on March 30, of failing to air his campaign advertisements and not returning the payments.

- 'Better off selling it'

The president has repeatedly vowed in public speeches to block any new licence, and a proposed law that would give ABS-CBN a 25-year operating permit has gathered dust in Congress since mid-2016.

Duterte taunted the network in a speech in December, telling the owners to sell it.

"ABS-CBN, your contract is about to expire. If I were you, you're better off selling it," Duterte said. "I will make sure that you will remember this episode of our times forever."

The government has similarly used the same accusation about foreign ownership against news website Rappler, which in 2018 had its licence revoked in a decision currently under appeal. The website, along with its editor Maria Ressa, has faced a string of legal charges related to its critical reporting.

"It's a clear indication that this government will do everything it can to shut ABS-CBN down," Nonoy Espina, chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, told AFP.

Espina said should the government succeed with the petition it will open doors for similar cases against the media in the future.

"If they shut ABS-CBN down, then that's one big voice lost and it will make it easier for them to start shutting down the other voices that they do not agree with."