MANILA, May 6 (Reuters) - Philippine legislators pushed on Wednesday to get the country's biggest broadcaster back on air, amid widespread shock and dismay over an order by the industry regulator for the station to cease operations after its 25-year licence expired.
Aides to President Rodrigo Duterte sought to distance him from Tuesday's move against ABS-CBN Corp, insisting his office was as surprised as anyone and the mercurial leader no longer had an axe to grind with the station, despite past grievances.
Celebrities, entertainers and fans expressed sorrow on social media and labour, business and media groups urged intervention to spare thousands of jobs, protect free speech and guarantee access to vital public information amid the coronavirus epidemic.
The National Telecommunications Commission's (NTC) decision has puzzled many lawmakers and commentators, prompting allegations by Duterte's critics that his allies are exploiting a strict lockdown and trying to intimidate the media using legal and regulatory processes.
ABS-CBN had no comment on Wednesday about what its next move would be. Trading of its shares was suspended on Wednesday and its main rival GMA Network Inc surged to a one-year high, closing up 23.7% having spiked 50% during trading.
ABS-CBN, a 66-year-old entertainment and media conglomerate, employs nearly 7,000 people, operates 21 radio and 38 television stations nationwide and distributes online content.
It shut down most of its radio and TV stations on Tuesday just before 8 p.m., leaving only a few channels with separate licences operating.
The NTC had in March indicated that ABS-CBN could remain on air pending its licence renewal by the lower house of Congress, which only returned from recess on Monday and has been criticised for dragging its heels on the renewal.
There was no indication why the regulator changed its stance, but the office of the solicitor-general said it had cautioned the NTC against allowing ABS to broadcast without a licence. The NTC said on Wednesday it stood by its decision and that ABS-CBN could seek a temporary restraining order from a court
Rufus Rodriguez, a pro-Duterte congressman, said it was pointless asking the NTC to change its mind.
"We can't depend on the NTC anymore. We have to make sure in this one month we are in session, we can give a provisional franchise," said Rodriguez, who filed a resolution on Wednesday to get ABS-CBN an interim licence.
Senate President Vicente Sotto said that if the lower house failed to do that, his chamber could get the job done.
"Bring it to the Senate, we will approve it!," he said on Twitter.
ABS-CBN has been on tenterhooks for several years because of Duterte's repeated threats to thwart its renewal bid, his anger stemming from its failure to air some of his paid election campaign commercials, for which it recently apologised.
ABS-CBN shares have lost more than half their value during Duterte's presidency, which began in 2016.
Duterte's legal counsel Salvador Panelo said anyone accusing him of involvement was "barking up the wrong tree" because Duterte had forgiven ABS-CBN.
His spokesman, Harry Roque, said the president wanted his supporters in Congress to know that he would not be upset if they backed ABS-CBN's licence renewal.
"He kept on reiterating in our conversation that he is neutral and to let his allies know that her will not hold it against them," Roque said.
Both were speaking on ANC, the cable news channel of ABS-CBN, which operates under a separate licence.
The hashtag #notoabscbnshutdown attracted more than 17,000 posts on Instagram by Wednesday afternoon and 10,000 posts on Twitter under #abscbnsigningoff, trending third behind news on American and Korean celebrities. (Writing and additional reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)