ABS-CBN ordered to go off air as franchise lapses

Ian Nicolas Cigaral - Philstar.com
ABS-CBN ordered to go off air as franchise lapses
In this photo taken Feb. 14, 2020, ABS-CBN employees, supporters and various rights group gather in front of the ABS-CBN main office in Quezon City to join in the Black Friday protest calling for the renewal of the network’s franchise.
The STAR / Miguel De Guzman

MANILA, Philippines — Regulators ordered ABS-CBN Corp. to stop airing on Tuesday, a day after its legislative franchise expired, putting at risk over 11,000 jobs in the country's biggest network as millions of Filipinos get displaced by the coronavirus outbreak. 

In a statement, the National Telecommunications Commission ordered the broadcast giant to “cease and desist” operations after Republic Act No. 7966, which granted the network a 25-year license to operate, expired last May 4, 2020.

NTC also gave ABS-CBN 10 days to "respond as to why the frequencies assigned to it should not be recalled."

The suprise order from regulators capped the Duterte government's efforts to shut down the Lopez-led firm, efforts that transcended the branches of government— from President Duterte's attacks to the network, lawmakers' refusal to hear bills renewing its franchise, and a pleading from the government's lawyer before the Supreme Court to invalidate its existing license. 

Last Sunday, World Press Freedom Day, Solicitor General Jose Calida made a last-ditch effort to put ABS-CBN off air. He asked NTC not to issue a provisional permit to operate without a new franchise from the legislature.

But a day after, legislators in both houses of Congress, as well as Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, expressed disagreement with Calida's opinion saying there should be no roadblock for NTC to grant ABS-CBN a permit. This is especially true, they said, since Congress, which has the sole power to grant franchises, had already written NTC to clear the way for ABS-CBN's continued airing.

"The NTC requested our opinion and the DOJ (Department of Justice) gave them an advice in accordance with law and equity. The Congress expressed essentially the same view as that of the DOJ and further enjoined the NTC to issue provisional authority...," Guevarra told reporters in a text message Tuesday.

Appeals from the DOJ and Congress appear to have not succeeded with NTC's latest order for the network to stop airing. "The NTC regional offices shall implement the closure order in their respective areas of jurisidiction," regulators said in a statement.

The order is likewise curious since NTC last March allowed ABS-CBN Convergence Inc. to operate beyond the lapsing of its franchise last March 16 during the Luzon lockdown. ABS-CBN Convergence is the network's telecom arm in charge of Bayan Communications and ABS-CBN Mobile.

President Duterte has repeatedly threatened to block the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, which he accused of failing to return his money for campaign propaganda not aired during the 2016 presidential elections. Since gettting elected, Duterte has also alleged that ABS-CBN's reporting has been bias against his government. The network has repeatedly denied the allegations.

The closure order against ABS-CBN threatens the jobs of more than 11,000 workers employed by the network and its subsidiaries, regulatory filings showed.

The NTC order was issued hours after the shortened trading at the local bourse ended. On Tuesday, ABS-CBN shares closed at P17.50 apiece, up from P17 in the prior day.

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