Philippine lawmakers refused on Friday to issue a new operating licence for the country’s broadcasting giant ABS-CBN Corp, in the latest blow to media outlets critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policies.
The lower house committee voted 70-11 to reject ABS-CBN’s application for another 25-year franchise after it was forced off the air in May over a stalled renewal of its previous licence, which Duterte had pledged to block.
The results of the vote – slammed by critics as an assault on press freedom – could potentially keep the radio, TV and internet giant from broadcasting until the end of Duterte’s term in 2022.
ABS-CBN president Carlo Katigbak said the company was “deeply hurt” by the decision.
“We believe that we have been rendering service that is meaningful and valuable to the Filipino public,” Katigbak said in a statement.
“We hope to find other ways to achieve our mission.”
Hundreds of ABS-CBN employees, including some of its biggest stars, protested outside Congress on Friday in a last-ditch effort to convince lawmakers to vote in their favour.
About 11,000 jobs could be lost due to the shutdown, ABS-CBN said previously.
During more than a dozen hearings lasting over a hundred hours, Duterte allies alleged ABS-CBN’s honorary chairman and top shareholder Eugenio Lopez was a US citizen which disqualified him from owning a Philippine media company.
They also accused the network of tax evasion, interfering in elections and abusing employees’ rights.
ABS-CBN denies the allegations.
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement: “Today’s vote . . . is an astounding display of obsequious behaviour by Congressional representatives, kowtowing to Duterte by agreeing to seriously limit media freedom in the Philippines.”
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said it was a “profoundly dark day for journalists” in the country.
Duterte had regularly targeted ABS-CBN with accusations that it had failed to air his ads during the 2016 presidential election despite accepting payment to do so.
It had appeared the media powerhouse would get its licence renewal after publicly apologising to the president earlier this year.
Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said the committee’s decision was the “sole prerogative of Congress”.
He said: “Much as we want to work with the aforesaid media network, we have to abide by the resolution of the House committee.”
ABS-CBN’s broadcast news coverage had been watched by millions daily before regulators forced it off the air.
The network has challenged the order in the Supreme Court, arguing it curtailed freedom of speech guaranteed by the Philippine constitution. The court has not ruled on the case.
ABS-CBN is allowed to file a fresh licence application but its success would require members of Congress, whose terms expire in 2022, to change their minds.
Duterte is notorious for tangling with media outlets critical of his policies, including a drug war that has killed thousands.
Journalist Maria Ressa, an outspoken critic, faces up to six years in prison after she was convicted of cyber libel last month.
Her website Rappler is also battling a government closure effort.