QUEZON CITY, PHILIPPINES - FEBRUARY 28: Supporters and employees of ABS-CBN network, the Philippines' biggest broadcaster, join a protest as they push for the renewal of the network's franchise in Quezon City on February 28, 2020. The country's Solicitor General has petitioned the Supreme Court to revoke the franchise expiring this March. President Rodrigo Duterte has openly spoken against the franchise renewal, which is subject to the approval of Congress, majority of which are Mr Duterte's allies. Dante Diosina Jr / Anadolu Agency

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s long-running standoff with the Lopez business clan has finally come to a head with the forced closure of the family’s ABS-CBN media empire, the nation’s largest news broadcaster.

ABS-CBN’s shutdown, imposed by a state telecom regulator on May 5, has sent shockwaves across the nation and beyond, raising fears that Duterte is moving towards full-fledged authoritarianism under emergency powers granted to him to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

The news network’s suspension also renews the populist leader’s battle with what he has often referred to as the country’s “oligarchs”, big business families that control sprawling conglomerates in various business sectors he accuses of contributing to the nation’s wealth divide.

He has previously taken aim at the Ayala and Pangilinan clans, owners respectively of the Ayala Corp and First Pacific conglomerates and with open ties to the political opposition. Duterte has claimed both have evaded taxes and abused different concessions, and even threatened physical violence against the elite clans.

He’s reserved his toughest threats, however, for the Lopez family. His government’s top attorney, Jose Calida, earlier claimed the Lopez family had abused the terms of ABS-CBN’s franchise agreement and petitioned the Supreme Court for it to be revoked.

The media company has consistently denied violating the terms of its operating license. It’s 25-year franchise officially expired on May 4. Investigations by the Senate back those claims, with a recent review showing it had committed no legal violations. The Philippine Bureau of Internal Revenues has also made it clear that ABS-CBN is up-to-date on its tax payments.

ABS-CBN network headquarters in Quezon City in the Metro Manila area on May 5, 2020. Photo: Maria Tan/AFP

The station’s politicized closure is thus setting the stage for what could be a defining moment of Duterte’s presidency and the country’s future as a democracy.  The last time ABS-CBN was forced off the air was in 1972, when then-strongman leader Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, shuttered independent media and violently muzzled independent voices and critics.

ABS-CBN’s latest closure, enforced on May 5 in a “cease and desist” order issued by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), is legally dubious and caught even top officials and Duterte allies off-guard after high-level assurances the broadcaster could continue to operate while its new franchise application was still pending in Congress.

Speaker of the House and staunch Duterte ally Alan Peter Cayetano reassured days earlier that “there is no intention to order their closure, to shut them down, or take advantage of this situation. That’s why we have already instructed the NTC, the committee on [legislative] franchise that ABS-CBN should continue to broadcast.”

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, meanwhile, said on May 4 that ABS-CBN could continue its operations while Congress deliberated its renewal application.

Given the network’s popularity among the masses and growing discontent amid a stifling months-long Covid-19 lockdown, congressional leaders lashed out at both the NTC and Calida, the chief architect of the president’s various legal attacks on his critics.

“If the NTC chooses to succumb to the pressure of the Solicitor General, and disregard the commitments they gave under oath, we reserve the right to call them before Congress and explain why they should not be held in contempt,” Franz Alvarez, chairperson of the House legislative franchises committee, said in a statement.

Analysts note that other major media networks, including the rival GMA Network, were allowed to operate beyond their franchise renewal deadlines, while others have continued to operate without an operating license for over a month.

ABS-CBN raised the political stakes in a statement that claimed millions of Filipinos will lose access to crucial and timely information during the Covid-19 pandemic and that it’s volunteer work in cooperation with local governments to provide food and basic goods to over 600,000 affected families is in jeopardy.  

Shoppers stand apart as social distancing measures amid concerns over the Covid-19 epidemic, while queueing outside a supermarket in Manila on March 17, 2020. Photo: AFP / Maria Tan

Former senator and now  Governor  Francis  “Chiz” Escudero suggested that the president could sill step in and save the day. “[Duterte] can reverse the order of the NTC,”  the governor said on Twitter. “This is not the time to deprive the people (with) information re: the pandemic.”

Duterte has so far steered clear of the issue. But few doubt his influence over the closure decision.

Last December, Duterte publicly threatened to shut down the network by refusing to renew its franchise. The threat was directed specifically at the Lopez family, who he goaded to sell the network before it was closed down.

That led to speculation that Duterte aims to hand the franchise to one of his political or business allies.  

“Your franchise will end next year. If you expect it to be renewed, I’m sorry. I will see to it that you’re out,” the president warned.

It’s a threat he could deliver considering his political allies dominate the Philippine Congress, with his former vice presidential running mate, Alan Peter Cayetano, now serving as Speaker of the House.

It’s not entirely clear why Duterte has such a sharp axe to grind with the Lopez clan. He has repeatedly claimed that the station refused to run his political ads during the 2016 presidential election campaign while running those of his rivals.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the campaign trail in 2016. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Duterte’s long-time adviser and now senator Christopher Go claimed that those rival ads “hurt” Duterte and that ABS-CBN effectively disseminated “black propaganda” against him at the Senate hearings held last month.

“The grievances of the president against the network are not shallow. He was hurt and felt violated,” Go said.

“If you are mean to the President, he will be meaner to you. If you are nice to the President, then he will be nicer to you. If you want fair reporting, then you ought to report the truth about why the President was hurt,” Go presciently warned.