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Freedom of the Press belongs to the people

A statement of unity on the closure of ABS-CBN by the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All (FMFA) Network
May 6, 2020

As the country battles a pandemic, the government has found it more important to press on its assault on media freedom through the cease and desist order issued by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) against broadcast network ABS-CBN.

The timing borders on the bizarre when on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, Solicitor General Jose Calida warned of graft charges against the NTC if it allowed the network to operate beyond May 4, the date its 25-year franchise expired.

It is doubly despicable that it happens as our people battle a deadly pandemic, which they will need timely and accurate information to defeat. To take away a network with a reach so broad there are areas where it is the only source of information could prove fatal during this plague.

While Congress professed surprise and reacted with anger at what it saw as the NTC's disregard for its sovereign authority to decide on franchises, it cannot wash its hands of this travesty. Lawmakers themselves had the whole time to deliberate on the bills to renew ABS-CBN's franchise but did not.

But let us not forget where the ultimate responsibility for the silencing of ABS-CBN lies: President Rodrigo Duterte. Irked by the network's failure – since explained – to air his ads during the 2016 presidential campaign, he personally and repeatedly vowed in public to block the renewal of ABS-CBN's franchise.

And now ABS-CBN has gone dark. The message is clear: What Duterte wants, Duterte gets.

It is just as clear that Duterte's real intent is to silence the critical media and intimidate everyone else into submission. And this we should not and cannot allow.

As a people, we must understand and recognize that this goes beyond ABS-CBN. Government's decision to close a major media network places the narrow personal and political interests of those in power over the welfare of the people. The fourth estate under attack, the silencing of dissent, are symptoms of a virus that has found its way inside a weak system of governance.

Whatever complaints have been lodged against the network, there are agencies in which these should be threshed out. If anything needs to be corrected, these can and should be undertaken with a greater respect and without violation of the fundamental protection provided in the Constitution for freedom of expression and press freedom.

While we expect the matter to be brought before the judiciary and hope for a just resolution, we must go beyond clearly damaged institutions to defend our rights and liberties.

In this period of crisis, when there is worsening poverty and hunger, we must all work together, set aside differences, ease the lines of communication and resist, condemn and speak out against government's attempt to trample on our freedoms. Our people's lives could well depend on this. For sure, democracy does.

We, the community of independent Filipino journalists, call on all Filipinos who cherish democracy and liberty to stand with us. This is our common cause.

Freedom of the press does not belong to us, the media, but to you, the people. It is a freedom we wield in the service of the people's right to know and to help ensure that you enjoy your right to free expression.

We triumphed once over a tyrant who thought he could silence our collective voices for long. We can do so again.