A billionaire businessman and political fundraiser linked to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has wrested control of the broadcast frequencies used by the country’s largest television network ABS-CBN before the government forced it to close, raising concern 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) a “provisional authority” to operate a digital channel in Metro Manila, and to do a test broadcast through its companion analogue channel – both of which used to carry ABS-CBN’s news and entertainment shows.
The authority was granted “after the determination of its legal, technical and financial qualification”, the NTC said, adding that Villar’s company had been waiting for an available digital television frequency since 2006.
The analogue station, Channel 2, was seen as ABS-CBN’s flagship channel. NTC said it had been “temporarily assigned” to AMBS for simulcast broadcast until 2023.
Villar, 72, ranked second in the Forbes List of 50 richest Filipinos in 2021, and has an estimated net worth of $6.7bn, mostly from property development.
He previously served as House Speaker and Senate president and ran unsuccessfully for president in 2010. His wife is a current member of the Senate, while his son was Duterte’s public works secretary until his resignation in October to run as a senator.
Villar is known to have contributed to Duterte’s 2016 presidential campaign, although the contribution amount has not been revealed.
In a post on social media, Danilo Arao, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines, called the government’s decision “shameless” and “anomalous”, while pointing to Villar’s political connections to the Duterte administration.
“It is a clear conflict of interest and blatant display of power and influence,” Arao told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
“Duterte claims to have dismantled the oligarchy, but he apparently tolerates oligarchs he is allied with,” he added.
Arao also pointed out that Villar’s daughter, a current member of Congress, was among those who voted against the renewal of ABS-CBN’s 25-year-old operating licence, paving the way for the Duterte administration to shut down the channel.
Ed Legaspi, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in Bangkok, also wrote in a social media post, “This is big!”
Duterte’s disdain of ABS-CBN
Since becoming president in 2016, Duterte has repeatedly expressed his disdain about the television network, which is owned by one of the richest families in the Philippines.
Duterte claimed that ABS-CBN refused to run his political advertisements during the 2016 campaign season – allegations denied by the network.
ABS-CBN’s coverage of Duterte’s so-called war on drugs, which has killed thousands of people, also upset him.
Duterte threatened on numerous occasions to block the renewal of the network’s franchise, while suggesting the owners should sell the company to break the impasse. At the same time, he insisted his hand-picked leaders in Congress were free to decide on the issue.
Duterte, however, failed to acknowledge that for several years while he was mayor of the southern town of Davao, one of ABS-CBN’s regional channels had regularly broadcast his weekly programme.
In a statement to the media on Wednesday, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it was “concerned” about the latest developments.
This is big! Duterte ally Villar takes over ABS-CBN frequencies with the backing of the palace and the d
Department of Justice https://t.co/zmWA2iN1M9
— Ed Legaspi (@soiclyst) January 25, 2022
“We are concerned at the concentration of power in a corporate media landscape already dominated by conglomerates and political clans. This has dire implications on the people’s right to relevant information especially during times of crises,” the NUJP said.
Since losing its franchise in 2020, ABS-CBN has continued to offer its news and entertainment programmes online, but it has been forced to shut down most of its broadcast operations in the Philippines. It has also tied up with other minor television stations to broadcast its shows.
(What do you mean, tied up?)
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 $263.6m the same year, which it attributed to the lack of free-to-air advertising space. It reported a further $70.3m net loss during the first nine months of 2021.
According to Philippine news reports, Duterte’s justice department also cleared NTC’s latest decision to reassign the television frequencies from ABS-CBN to AMBS, despite the former TV station’s continued push for the next Congress to reinstate its licence application.
Villar’s daughter-in-law has been serving as an undersecretary at the Department of Justice, but it is unclear if she was directly involved in the decision to approve NTC’s decision.