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Philippines Orders Its Top News Network to Shut Down

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  • The Philippine government shut down the country’s biggest news broadcaster on Tuesday.
  • President Rodrigo Duterte has long attacked the network, ABS-CBN, which has extensively reported on his so-called war on drugs that has killed thousands.
  • The decision to shutter a major source of news during the pandemic was widely criticized, but it represents a growing trend of attacks on press freedoms by Duterte’s administration.

ABS-CBN Shutdown

The Philippine government ordered the country’s largest news network, ABS-CBN, to stop operations on Tuesday, marking the first time that a major broadcaster has been shut down by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The move comes when the company’s license expired Monday after the Philippines’ Congress failed to renew it.

Congress has the sole power to grant broadcast licenses, but the Lower House, which is stacked with Duterte’s allies, has refused to pass bills that would renew ABS-CBN’s permit. 

The company has been around for nearly 75 years, and according to the Strait Times, ABS-CBN’s TV channel “is watched by two out of five Filipinos, which is roughly 40 million.”

The network also runs a popular radio station that has a 25% share of the market. It has a cable TV channel and operates a subsidiary that offers online content, both of which are not included in the shutdown order.

The decision is even more significant because the government is deciding to shut down the biggest TV news network in the middle of the pandemic. As of Tuesday, the Philippines has reported over 9,600 confirmed cases and 630 deaths.

Much of the population is under strict quarantine measures, and last month, Duterte ordered the police and military to shoot and kill anyone who violated the lockdown.

According to reports, ABS-CBN was on the front lines of the pandemic, reporting on hard topics like the state of health care workers and hunger under quarantine.

On top of that, the network also said that it gave relief goods worth nearly $6 million to about 600,000 families that were under lockdown.

Duterte vs. ABS-CBN 

While the governments’ decision is highly consequential, it is not entirely out of the blue.

Duterte has been threatening to close ABS-CBN since he took office in 2016, and his beef with the network goes back even before he was president.

During the 2016 election, he accused the company of refusing to run one of his political ads— which it denied. Since then, he has also accused the network of tax evasion, called its reporters “sons of bitches,” and accused them of being spies.

Meanwhile, ABS-CBN has been closely and critically documenting Duterte’s so-called war on drugs, which has killed thousands. As a result, Duterte has repeatedly said he would never sign a law renewing ABS-CBN’s broadcast license.

He even told the network’s owners to sell the company if they wanted the license— a move that pushed many to believe he wanted an ally of his to take over the leading broadcaster.

Then, in February, ABS-CBN’s president apologized to Duterte in a Congressional hearing. Duterte accepted the apology but said the license renewal was up to Congress, which continued to hold up that process. 

The Department of Justice and the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) had previously told Congress a temporary permit would be issued to let the network continue operations after its license expired.

But on Sunday, the government’s top lawyer, Jose Calida, threatened to charge the NTC with graft if they gave ABS-CBN the permit.

While Calida claimed that the NTC does not have the power to give out those permits, others pointed out that it is something the regulator has done a number of times before.

As a result, the unusual move received a lot backlash, even from some of Duterte’s allies, like Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri who called the move “highly irregular.”

“I know for a fact that there are many stations operating on a provisional authority,” he added. “We can cite many instances when the NTC granted a provisional authority for those still applying for their franchises.”

Response

The effort to shut down ABS-CBN was also met with criticism from industry groups and human rights activists, many of whom called it an attack on press freedoms and freedom of speech.

“ABS-CBN’s indefatigable journalists have fully embraced their role to provide the public with vital information on the pandemic despite risks to their health and safety,” the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said in a statement. 

“ABS-CBN’s indefatigable journalists have fully embraced their role to provide the public with vital information on the pandemic despite risks to their health and safety,” it continued. “The move is clearly a case of political harassment against a pillar of Philippine democracy that employs thousands of Filipinos whose livelihoods are now at risk with the order.”

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines hit on similar points in a series of tweets.

“It sends a clear message: What Duterte wants, Duterte gets. And it is clear, with this brazen move to shut down ABS-CBN, that he intends to silence the critical media and intimidate everyone else into submission,” the organization wrote.

Human Rights Watch also condemned the move, saying Calida should “stop acting like Duterte’s attack dog.” The hashtags #NoToABSCBNShutDown, #IStandWithABSCBN, and #DefendPressFreedom also trended top on Twitter, with many slamming the move there.

Broader Issues of Press Freedoms

Despite the significance of the government’s decision, this, unfortunately, speaks to a broader trend in the Philippines.

According to the Washington Post, the country was once considered to have the freest press in Asia, but recently, it has consistently been ranked as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world.

Duterte’s administration has furthered that hostile environment for reporters, and Duterte himself has openly threatened journalists and media outlets. He has made death threats against some reporters, and said that no journalists should be “exempted from assassination.”

This is also not the first time Duterte has acted out against a news organization. His government has gone after Maria Ressa, who runs the Manila-based online news service Rappler, which has also extensively covered Duterte’s drug war.

Last year, Ressa told 60 Minutes that she had been threatened with imprisonment, rape, and death for her reporting. According to CBS News, she is currently facing nearly a dozen court cases.

Ressa also told CBS that “Duterte’s policies were an attempt to silence and manipulate the media to pervert the course of democracy, and she called it ‘a cautionary tale for the United States.’”

See what others are saying: (The Strait Times) (The Washington Post) (CBS News)

International

First Person Charged Under Hong Kong National Security Law Found Guilty of Terrorism and Inciting Secession

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Dozens more are awaiting trial for breaking the controversial National Security Law, which is aimed at protecting Chinese sovereignty at the cost of basic freedoms within Hong Kong.


First Conviction Under National Security Law

The first person to be charged under Hong Kong’s extremely controversial National Security Law was found guilty of his crimes Tuesday morning.

A judge ruled that Tong Ying-kit was guilty of both terrorism and inciting secession after the 24-year-old failed to stop at a police checkpoint while on his motorcycle last July, which resulted in him eventually riding into police. At the same time, he was carrying a flag that said “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”

According to Justice Esther Toh, that phrase alone was capable of inciting others to commit succession, she also that added that Tong understood that the flag had secessionist meaning in an effort to set aside doubts that Tong understood the flag’s inherent meaning.

Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director said,“The conviction of Tong Ying-kit is a significant and ominous moment for human rights in Hong Kong.”

“Today’s verdict underlines the sobering fact that expressing certain political opinions in the city is now officially a crime, potentially punishable by life in jail,” she added.

More Convictions Expected Sparking Fear Over Erosion of Rights

A long string of convictions will likely follow Tong’s, as over 100 people have been arrested under the ambiguous law that criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression under the guise of protecting Chinese sovereignty. Of those arrested, 60 are currently awaiting trial, including dozens of pro-democracy politicians who have been accused of subversiveness for their calls to block the government’s agenda in the legislature.

That has drawn particular concern among international critics who fear the precedent that will be set once it’s clear to politicians that failing to rubber-stamp the Communist Party’s agenda will result in prison terms.

It’s widely expected that as more people are found guilty, the few remaining protections of the city’s Basic Law, a British common law-inspired mini-constitution, will be completely eroded.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (BBC)

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International

Tunisian President Fires Prime Minister, Suspends Parliament Over Deadlock and COVID-19 Response

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President Kais Saied claims his actions are constitutional and have the support of the military, which has already blocked off government buildings. His opponents, however, call the move little more than a coup.


President Makes Massive Changes to Government

Tunisia’s government received a major shakeup after President Kais Saied fired the Prime Minister and froze parliament late Sunday.

The move, according to Saied, was meant to break years of parliamentary deadlock between Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and various political parties that have sturggled to find common ground. However, the timing comes just after a massive protest over how the government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic turned violent earlier on Sunday.

Either way, the move risks sparking a confrontation between Saied —who is backed by the army — and various political parties that view his actions as a coup.

The President’s actions have proven cotnroversial. Despite that, he has widepsread support after being elected in 2019 on a platform to fight corrupt politicians.

After the announcement, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in support of his decision to dismiss the Prime Minister and parliament, with many cheering as he appeared among the crowd Sunday night.

In recent months, anger at the ruling government has only increased as many feel the ruling coalition, largely made up of the Islamist Ennahda (“Renaissance”) party, have been ineffective.

It’s a common belief in Tunisia that Ennahda’s rule, alongside its tenuous coalition, helped exacerbate problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the economy shrinking by 8% as tourism plummeted.

One of the President’s supporters told Reuters and other outlets during Sunday’s demonstration, “We are here to protect Tunisia. We have seen all the tragedies under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

He mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, which had a strong presence in Egpyt after the Arab Spring, becuase Ennahda has longstanding relationship with the group, although it has sought to distance itself as a more moderate political group over the last few years.

Now, for their part, the ruling coalition has argued that Saied’s move is clearly unconstitutional. Rached Ghannouchi, leade of Ennahda and Parliamentary Speaker, said that he is “against gathering all powers in the hands of one person.” His position isn’t without supporters eithers. Both sides have already gathered throughout the capital and have thrown rocks at each other.

Legalities of Article 80

The question across many minds is whether or not Saied’s actions are actually constitutional.

He claims that under Article 80 of the constitution, he can fire the Prime Minister, suspend parliament for 30 days, and appoint a premier to rule — all of which is true.

However, in order to do that, the Prime Minister and the Parliamentary Speaker need to be consulted; something Parliamentary Speaker Ghannouchi said was never done. It’s unclear what Mechichi’s position is as he’s stayed inside his home all day, though the army says he is not under any kind of arrest.

In addition to those requirements, a Constitutional Court needs to approve the move, and one hasn’t been set up. As the German Foregin Office put it on Monday morning, it seems like Saied is relying on “a rather broad interpretation of the constitution.”

International observers hope a solution will soon be made to keep what seems to be the last functional democracy to come from the Arab Spring from devolving into civil war or dictatorship.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Reuters) (BBC)

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International

South Korean President Makes BTS Official Presidential Envoys

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The position is largely ceremonial but will be used by the government to help give a friendly and popular face to national and international initiatives spearheaded by Seoul.


Government Recognition

The K-pop band BTS will be adding to its list of global impacts this year after South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed its members as Presidential Envoys on Wednesday.

The role will include attending international conferences such as the United Nations General Assembly in September.

At these events, BTS will perform “various activities to promote international cooperation in solving global challenges, such as improving the environment, eliminating poverty and inequality, and respecting diversity,” according to Park Kyung-mee, a Blue House spokesperson.

The band has already appeared at U.N. conferences multiple times over the last few years.

Just last year, the group gave a message of hope and reassurance through the U.N. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior appearances at the U.N. have been either as part of U.N. organizations or as private citizens.

Wednesday’s appointment will make them official representatives of South Korea, although they won’t actually engage in any direct diplomacy and instead will be used to promote the country’s ongoing efforts in youth-related projects.

Longstanding Policy

BTS’ success, alongside prior and current K-pop groups, has remained a masterclass of soft diplomacy by the Korean government. For decades, the Korean government has cultivated promoting cultural aspects abroad in the hopes of generating more interest in the country. There are hopes that such efforts will encourage more tourism as well as an elevated image when consumers consider Korean-made products.

Such efforts, beyond cultivating K-pop and raising its stars as semi-official government symbols, also include helping fund Korean restaurants abroad as well as free Korean-language classes taught by Professors of some of Korea’s most prestigious schools.

The news comes as BTS’ newest single, “Permission to Dance,” quickly took the #1 spot on the Billboard top 100. BTS is also partnering with YouTube to promote a Permission to Dance challenge on YouTube Shorts that will begin tomorrow and end on August 4.

Fans will be encouraged to replicate dance moves from the music video, and the group’s favorite clips will be put into a compilation made by them.

See what others are saying: (Yonhap News) (The Korea Times) (All Kpop)

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