Government anti-communist task force posts propaganda against ABS-CBN, Rappler’s Maria Ressa

CMFR/PHILIPPINES — The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), the government’s anti-communist task force, published social media posts on 9 May 2020 denying that the closure of ABS-CBN network is an attack on press freedom and accusing Rappler’s Maria Ressa of spreading fake news about the issue.

In a now deleted post, the NTF-ELCAC claimed that ABS-CBN’s closure is not a press freedom issue and encouraged readers to stay informed and be vigilant about the left’s supposedly using the issue to discredit the government and deceive Filipinos.

The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) ordered the closure of ABS-CBN on May 5 after its franchise expired on May 4. Bills granting the network’s franchise filed at the start of 18th Congress in 2019 are still pending at the House of Representatives. The same bills were filed as early as 2016 during the current administration but were not acted upon by the franchising committee. Since 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte has been saying that he will prevent the renewal of the franchise of the network.

According to the NTF-ELCAC’s post, ABS-CBN’s request for the renewal of its franchise was “disapproved because they have issues with the law.” It claimed that ABS-CBN illegally collected money from the Filipino people through pay per view services that should be free. Solicitor General Jose Calida had made the same claim in his quo warranto petition filed on February 10 asking the Supreme Court to “forfeit” the ABS-CBN franchise for its “highly abusive practices.” On February 24, however, during a senate hearing, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said pay per view services are allowed by the franchise.

The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) shared the post in its social media page. Later, however, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar issued a statement saying that the post was shared without going through the “vetting process” of his office.

But National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon in a Manila Bulletin report said the NTF-ELCAC has “the duty to step into any issue if the Left is using it against the government.” He also believed that the closure has nothing to do with press freedom but with law and order.

The NTF-ELCAC, in another deleted post, also accused Rappler Executive Editor Maria Ressa of spreading misinformation, when she mistakenly told the anchor of ABC News Australia that 11 million, instead of 11 thousand, employees may lose their jobs with the closure of ABS-CBN.

The post also said that Ressa’s claim linking Duterte to ABS-CBN’s closure and that the shutdown is an attack on press freedom are fake news.

However, a number of media, journalists’ and human rights groups as well as individuals noted that the task force’s weighing in on the ABS-CBN franchise issue is one more indication of the entire Duterte regime’s concerted campaign of attacking the press and undermining press freedom and free  expression.

Different groups and individuals from the media, the academe and civil society organizations issued a joint statement on May 10 condemning the propaganda against ABS-CBN and Ressa. According to the group:

“These Facebook posts, while they have been taken down, are a brazenly criminal abuse of authority on the part of the NTF-ELCAC, replete with half-truths and outright lies that willfully endanger Maria and the management and personnel of the network that government shut down.

“The only reason we can think of why a government entity tasked to combat the communist insurgency would wage a propaganda offensive against media persons and outfits is if government now considers us the enemy.”

The Duterte administration has never pretended to be a press freedom advocate, with the President himself attacking journalists and news organizations for being critical of the government or for just reporting the truth. His animosity has become a model for other public officials, with even an anti-communist task force suddenly being involved in propaganda against the independent press and journalists.