Duterte ally wrests control of television signals used by ABS-CBN | Media News

A billionaire businessman and political fundraiser linked to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took control of the broadcast frequencies used by the country’s largest television network, ABS-CBN, before the government forced it to shut down , raising concerns about a further erosion of media freedom.

The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) said in a statement on Tuesday that it had granted Manuel Villar’s company, Advanced Media Broadcasting System (AMBS), “provisional permission” to operate a digital channel in Metro Manila. and to conduct a test broadcast through its complementary analog channel – both of which carried ABS-CBN’s news and entertainment programming.

The authorization was granted “after determining its legal, technical and financial qualification”, the NTC said, adding that Villar’s company had been waiting since 2006 for an available digital television frequency.

The analog station, Channel 2, was considered ABS-CBN’s flagship channel. NTC said it was “temporarily assigned” to AMBS for simulcast until 2023.

Villar, 72, ranked second on Forbes’ list of 50 richest Filipinos in 2021 and has an estimated net worth of $6.7 billion, mostly from real estate development.

He previously served as Speaker of the House and President of the Senate and unsuccessfully ran for President in 2010. His wife is currently a member of the Senate, while his son served as Duterte’s public works secretary until his resignation in October to run for senator.

Villar is known to have contributed to Duterte’s presidential campaign in 2016, although the amount of the contribution was not disclosed.

In a social media post, Danilo Arao, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines, called the government’s decision “brazen” and “abnormal,” while pointing to Villar’s political ties to the Duterte administration.

“It’s a clear conflict of interest and a blatant display of power and influence,” Arao told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

“Duterte claims to have dismantled the oligarchy, but he apparently tolerates the oligarchs with whom he is allied,” he added.

Arao also pointed out that Villar’s daughter, currently a congressman, was among those who voted against renewing ABS-CBN’s 25-year operating license, paving the way for the channel to be shut down by the Duterte administration.

Ed Legaspi, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in Bangkok, also wrote in a social media post: “This is huge!”

Duterte’s contempt for ABS-CBN

Since becoming president in 2016, Duterte has repeatedly expressed his contempt for the television network, which is owned by one of the Philippines’ wealthiest families.

Villar [centre] unsuccessfully ran for President of the Philippines in 2010. His wife, Cynthia [left] is a current senator while his daughter, Camille [right] is a member of the House of Representatives [File: Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters]

Duterte claimed that ABS-CBN refused to air his political ads during the 2016 campaign season – allegations denied by the network.

ABS-CBN’s coverage of Duterte’s so-called war on drugs, which killed thousands, also upset him.

Duterte has repeatedly threatened to block the network’s franchise renewal, while suggesting the owners sell the business to break the impasse. At the same time, he insisted that his hand-picked leaders in Congress were free to decide the issue.

Duterte, however, failed to acknowledge that for several years when he was mayor of the southern city of Davao, one of ABS-CBN’s regional channels regularly aired its weekly program.

In a statement to media on Wednesday, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it was “concerned” by the latest developments.

“We are concerned about the concentration of power in a corporate media landscape already dominated by conglomerates and political clans. This has dire implications for people’s right to relevant information, especially in times of crisis,” the NUJP said.

Since losing its franchise in 2020, ABS-CBN has continued to deliver its news and entertainment programs online, but has been forced to shut down most of its broadcast operations in the Philippines. It has also partnered with other minor television stations to air its shows.

(What do you mean, tied?)

According to ABS-CBN, at least 4,000 people lost their jobs when the network was shut down. The broadcaster reported a net loss of at least $263.6 million in the same year, which it attributed to the lack of free-to-air advertising space. It reported an additional net loss of $70.3 million in the first nine months of 2021.

According to Philippine reports, Duterte’s Justice Department also cleared NTC’s latest move to reassign ABS-CBN’s TV frequencies to AMBS, despite the former TV station’s continued efforts to have the next Congress reinstates its license application.

Villar’s daughter-in-law served as an undersecretary at the Justice Department, but it’s unclear if she was directly involved in the decision to approve the NTC’s decision.

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