By Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales
MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine lawmakers rejected the renewal of a 25-year license for country's top broadcaster on Friday, outraging activists who saw the move to keep ABS-CBN Corp off the air as part of a political vendetta on behalf of President Rodrigo Duterte.
A legislative committee overwhelmingly agreed with a working group's assessment that ABS-CBN, which employs 11,000 people and has an audience of tens of millions of Filipinos, was "undeserving of the grant of legislative franchise".
Aides to Duterte, 75, sought to distance the president from the decision, as activists have accused him of using courts, Congress and regulatory bodies to systematically stamp out opposition to his popular autocracy.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, called it "a black day for media freedom" and "an astounding display of obsequious behaviour" by lawmakers kowtowing to Duterte.
"This move solidifies the tyranny of President Rodrigo Duterte," he said.
It comes a week after the passing of a controversial anti-terror law that Duterte fast-tracked through the legislature, granting his security chiefs powers to arrest and detain without charge or judicial approval anyone they consider a "terrorist".
Critics fear it will be used as a weapon to target dissent, including journalists, bloggers, lawyers and civil society groups seeking his international indictment for thousands of killings in his war on drugs.
ABS-CBN has been on tenterhooks since Duterte took office in 2016 and started threatening to block its renewal bid, in furious public outbursts stemming from the network's failure to air some of his paid election campaign commercials. It has since apologised.
Under Duterte, the market value of ABS-CBN has slumped 69% to $257 million. His spokesman, Harry Roque, said the president had always had "a neutral stance" on the franchise issue.
It was not immediately clear what the next steps would be for ABS-CBN, which continues to operate online, on cable and on social media, which are not impacted.
"This is a painful and sad day," said Regina Reyes, head of its news and current affairs.
"You feel your entire life's work was disregarded," she said, fighting back tears.
ABS-CBN's 21 radio and 38 television stations are a staple of news and entertainment across the Philippines and to the Filipino Diaspora, generating big advertising revenues from brands keen to tap mass audiences drawn to its talent shows, dramas and glamorous celebrities.
A caravan of cars carrying ABS-CBN employees and stars holding placards defending the network and media freedom circled the house. Its franchise loss was a top-trending issue on social media, with models and actors weighing in with support.
The decision follows a high-profile guilty verdict in a recent libel case against Maria Ressa, chief of news website Rappler, whose investigative reporting has frustrated the inner circle of Duterte, a maverick former mayor.
Rappler is fighting several other legal cases filed by the state.
(Editing by Martin Petty and Ed Davies)