MANILA: Staff and supporters raise their clinched fists during a protest in support of broadcaster ABS-CBN in Manila yesterday. - AFP

MANILA: The Philippine government yesterday urged the Supreme Court to cancel the franchises of the country's top broadcaster, ABS-CBN Corp, a move slammed by opposition lawmakers and activists as an attack designed to intimidate independent media.

The government said the 66-year-old entertainment and media conglomerate, which drew the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte during his 2016 election campaign, had violated ownership laws and was involved in "highly abusive practices". Duterte's opponents said the complaint was timed to deny Congress the chance to renew the franchise of ABS-CBN, which employs nearly 7,000 people and engages hundreds of celebrities in radio, television and online content.

Solicitor-General and staunch Duterte loyalist Jose Calida said ABS-CBN had for too long shown greed and abuse of what was a privileged franchise. "We want to put an end to what we discovered to be highly abusive practices of ABS-CBN benefiting a greedy few at the expense of millions of its loyal subscribers", Calida said in a statement. ABS-CBN denied that and said the complaint appeared to be "an effort to shut down ABS-CBN to the serious prejudice of millions of Filipinos".

Duterte's has threatened for three years to torpedo the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, which Duterte accuses of refusing to air his campaign commercials. ABS-CBN has not directly responded to Duterte's claims, but its chairman, Eugenio Lopez said at the company stockholders' meeting in 2017 that it was "part and parcel of our work being a media institution". Lopez also said the company deals with these problems privately.

The move comes at a time of concerns among some investors about regulatory unpredictability following a Duterte-ordered review of government contracts, which included big losses for two water firms whose billionaire owners Duterte has criticized. ABS-CBN has lost 65% of its share value since Duterte assumed office in June 2016. It fell as much as 2.9% on Monday. In 2018, the government revoked the license of Rappler, a news website known for its tough scrutiny of Duterte, who called it a "fake news outlet" sponsored by American spies. Rappler still operates pending appeal.

Calida said ABS-CBN started a pay-per-view channel without approval and charges fees not supposed to be levied. He said that like Rappler, ABS-CBN had breached foreign ownership restrictions behind an "elaborately crafted corporate veil". The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines said the Supreme Court and Congress had the chance to prove they were independent and not beholden to Duterte.

"We must not allow the vindictiveness of one man, no matter how powerful, to run roughshod over the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of the press and of expression, and the people's right to know," it said. Congressman Edcel Lagman said the complaint was "maliciously timed" while representative Rufus Rodriguez called it an encroachment on Congress's turf. Presidential spokesman Savlador Panelo said Duterte personally had nothing to do with the complaint, and in criticizing ABS-CBN, he was exercising his right to free speech. - Reuters