Manila: The Philippine government moved Monday to end the franchise of the country's leading broadcast network, the latest push by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte against media outlets that have been critical of his leadership.
The Philippine solicitor general, Jose Calida, lodged a complaint with the country's highest court, accusing ABS-CBN Corp. and its subsidiary, ABS-CBN Convergence, of violating the operating franchise it was granted by Congress, which is set to expire in March.
The move comes despite the fact that the House of Representatives has yet to start deliberating several bills supporting the renewal of the franchise. It was not clear how Calida's petition would affect that legislation.
"We want to put an end to what we discovered to be highly abusive practice of ABS-CBN benefiting a greedy few at the expense of millions of its loyal subscribers," Calida said in a statement announcing the move. "These practices have gone unnoticed or were disregarded for years."
But critics of Duterte say he is on the warpath against media entities that have questioned his drug war, which has drawn international condemnation. ABS-CBN, along with Filipino online news site Rappler, have been at the forefront of critical reporting about the antidrug campaign, which has left nearly 6,000 people dead since Duterte took office in 2016.
Calida said the government will prove that ABS-CBN has been broadcasting for a fee, "which is beyond the scope of its legislative franchise." He also accused the company of hiding behind what he said was an "elaborately crafted corporate veil" by allowing foreign investors to take part in its ownership.
He stressed that ABS-CBN "abused the privilege granted by the state" when it introduced a pay-per-view channel without approval by the government's telecommunications commission.
As he has with ABS-CBN, Duterte has personally gone after Rappler, arguing that it was partly owned by foreign investors.
The attempt to shut down Rappler, however, appear to have fizzled after the news site's foreign investors transferred their shares to their Filipino partners.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines assailed the move against the network.
"This proves without a doubt that this government is hell bent on using all its powers to shut down the broadcasting network," the union said. "We must not allow the vindictiveness of one man, no matter how powerful, to run roughshod over the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of the press and of expression, and the people's right to know."
Duterte has had particularly tense relations with the media. He and his aides have attacked The New York Times and The Washington Post, and several court cases are pending against Rappler's chief executive, Maria Ressa.
While the Philippine Constitution specifically calls for the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, Duterte has de facto control over the Senate and the House of Representatives through his allies.
Richard Javad Heydarian, a political scientist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: a Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy," said that while the government move was expected, time is on ABS-CBN's side because Duterte is already in the second half of his six-year term.
If the government does succeed in revoking the network's franchise, ABS-CBN could still most likely operate in some "legal gray zone," perhaps over the internet, so this would not likely be a death knell for the company, Heydarian said.
"I don't see any editorial compromise on the part of the ABS-CBN, which is very reassuring in itself," Heydarian said.
He said that Duterte appears to have taken from the playbook of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has also been accused of curtailing freedom of the press.
"There are just elements of Putinism here," Heydarian said. "We can see some Putin-like crackdown on the independent media, which was part of the Russian strongman's strategy of consolidating power."