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Shuttered Philippine TV network ends newscasts to millions

In this May 5, 2020 file photo, employees light candles outside the headquarters of broadcast network ABS-CBN Corp. in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

MANILA, Philippines (AP) -- The Philippines' largest TV network broadcast its final newscasts Friday to millions of provincial viewers with announcers tearfully bidding goodbye after lawmakers voted to reject its license renewal.

    ABS-CBN Corp. said it will only be able to distribute its news programs over cable in metropolitan Manila after Friday as it scaled down operations following a vote by a House of Representatives committee last month to reject the renewal of its 25-year franchise.

    It was the largest closure of news programs in an Asian bastion of democracy in recent memory and involved laying off news anchors and canceling programs that have gained widespread popularity in recent decades. Many announcers wept or fought back tears as they thanked their viewers.

    "It's a very sad day," anchor Peter Musngi of DZMM radio said, summing up the emotions in the network's newsrooms. "There is a lot of distress, sorrow. It's a tragedy, disastrous because there is a lot of farewells among us here."

    International media groups have condemned the shutdown of ABS-CBN, which was founded in 1953, as a major blow to media freedom.

    Watchdogs have accused President Rodrigo Duterte and his government of muzzling independent media such as ABS-CBN that have reported critically on issues such as his anti-drug crackdown that has left thousands of mostly poor drug suspects dead. Duterte earlier threatened to block the network's franchise renewal but his spokesman said the president did not influence the lawmakers' vote.

    Only the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Duterte's allies, can grant operating franchises to TV networks.

    A diverse range of groups, including Duterte allies and the opposition, have called on legislators to allow the network to continue operating to help disseminate news during the coronavirus pandemic, but Duterte's allies in the House committee voted overwhelmingly to shut it down.

    The Philippines has reported more than 209,000 COVID-19 cases, including 3,300 deaths, the highest in Southeast Asia.

    Duterte and his allies questioned the network's compliance with the law and the terms of its franchise, including its alleged use of a dummy corporation and large numbers of temporary workers without employment security. The company denied any wrongdoing.

    The network, which was viewed by large numbers of people nationwide over broadcast TV, has been able to continue distributing some of its TV and radio news programs in the capital on paid cable channels and on social media, but with only a small fraction of its former massive viewership.

    ABS-CBN had more than 11,000 news and production personnel nationwide before its closure.

    TV show producer Rodel Madriano packed his belongings in the network's main office on Friday, saying he believes the broadcasting giant will be able to reopen someday.

    "I felt like I was putting all my memories of ABS in the box," Madriano told the network, his voice cracking. "I've sealed it but I'm not sure when I'll be able to open it again."

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