Philippines: Withdraw gag order plea against ABS-CBN TV network

Responding to news that Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida has asked the Supreme Court for a gag order against statements about its pending petition to nullify the franchises of TV network ABS-CBN, Amnesty International’s Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin said:

“This gag order is a clear attempt to silence critics of the government, and would set a very dangerous precedent in violation of the right to freedom of expression. It is particularly reprehensible that the government is requesting to prevent people from freely discussing issues of public interest such as media freedom, and ongoing human rights violations in the country.

 “The authorities are cracking down not just on the TV network but also on the right of every Filipino to freely express themselves. This plea must be withdrawn.

“It is unacceptable for the authorities to blatantly attempt to restrict freedom of expression and then expect people in the Philippines to simply remain silent. If anything, the government’s continued efforts to undermine the press’s ability to report freely will only invite more criticism. The government would do better by listening and addressing what is driving such criticism rather than resorting to legal theatrics to suppress human rights.”

 Background

On 18 February 2018, Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida asked the Supreme Court to issue a gag order in relation to his earlier petition before the same court to invalidate the franchises and order the closure of ABS-CBN Corporation and its subsidiary, ABS-CBN Convergence, Inc. In the gag order plea, Calida asked the court to stop “parties and persons acting on their [ABS-CBN’s] behalf” from issuing statements about the petition.

In the quo warranto petition, Calida cited breaches of the law supposedly committed by the TV network, such as allowing foreign investors despite constitutional prohibitions. Calida also accused the network of launching a subscription service without the required government approval.

The Supreme Court has given ABS-CBN five days to respond to the gag order plea, and 10 days to respond to the petition.

Several bills are currently pending before the Philippine Congress for the renewal of the network’s franchise, but these have not been taken up since the current Congress began its term in July 2019. ABS-CBN’s franchise is set to expire in March 2020.

ABS-CBN has produced a number of investigative reports highlighting extrajudicial executions and other human rights abuses committed as part of the government’s so-called “war on drugs”. Similarly, news website Rappler and its editor in chief Maria Ressa, which have also been critical of the anti-drug campaign in their reporting, have been facing a string of lawsuits, including charges of tax evasion, cyber libel and foreign ownership.