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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

Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)

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Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls

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Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.


Hundreds Make It Out Alive

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.

People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.

The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.

Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.

“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”

63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.

“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.

Putin’s Plans Go Poorly

In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.

On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.

The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”

Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.

After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.

“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.

On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.

Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.

The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”

“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.

Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.

See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)

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International

Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished

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The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.


Settlers Get Ready to Move in

On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.

“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.

The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.

The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.

In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”

“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.

In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.

Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land

On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.

Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.

The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s

“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Peace Now) (Associated Press)

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