FLAG: House inaction led to ABS-CBN shutdown

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
FLAG: House inaction led to ABS-CBN shutdown
Employees and supporters light candles at the gate of the the ABS-CBN compound in Quezon City on May 5, 2020.
The STAR / Miguel de Guzman

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 9:21 p.m.) — Blame for ABS-CBN going off the air  is not solely on the National Telecommunications Commission, the Free Legal Assistance Group said, but also on Congress for not acting on bills to renew the network's franchise.

The broadcast giant signed off Tuesday night, hours after it received a cease and desist order from the government regulator ordering it to stop operations of its five AM radio stations, 18 FM stations and 42 TV stations after its legislative franchise expired on May 4.

While the order came from the NTC, FLAG stressed that the network’s shutdown was due largely to "members of the House of Representatives who refused to even hear the applications for the franchise renewal."

There are at least 11 bills for ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal sitting at the House of Representatives’ legislative mill, but the panel had only set one hearing on the proposed measures before the franchise expired.

Blame should also be on Solicitor General Jose Calida who threatened the NTC with graft charges should it give ABS-CBN provisional authority to operate beyond May 4.

Calida also sought to revoke ABS-CBN’s existing franchise before the Supreme Court on a separate issue of alleged violations by the network giant.

'DOJ could have clarified issues'

Government agencies like the Department of Justice too should take the blame as it “could have clarified the issues involving the power of the NTC when it could have done so but chose not to.”

NTC sought a legal opinion from the DOJ on ABS-CBN's franchise issues, but Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra only gave “guidance” to the Commission, saying that it is not allowed to issue one if it involves a private entity such as ABS-CBN.

Guevarra, instead, offered legal guidance and said there is “sufficient equitable basis to allow broadcast entities to continue operating while the bills for the renewal of their respective franchise remain pending with Congress.”

Even with guidance from the DOJ and an earlier statement that it would allow ABS-CBN to operate pending congressional action, NTC still issued the cease and desist order, effectively shutting down the media giant in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic and putting in limbo thousands of jobs.

NTC pre-empted congressional action

The NTC order also “takes on grave constitutional significance because the pending bills before the Congress may still be acted upon by the Congress and the franchise may still be granted,” FLAG said.

The lawyers’ group also stressed that the Congress holds the power to grant, modify and revoke franchises.

“The NTC’s order has pre-empted congressional action in this area exclusively reserved to it by the Constitution and is an exercise of discretion that gravely upsets the constitutional architecture and design,” it added.

READ: Lawmakers question NTC order for ABS-CBN to stop broadcasting

The lawyers’ group said that NTC’s order is in the nature of “administrative discretion” that is done with ‘an evil eye and an uneven hand,’ which the Supreme Court has consistently frowned upon.”

The network has in the past repeatedly bore the brunt of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ire, and was even told to just shut down, for its supposedly biased coverage against the government.

ABS-CBN apologized in a Senate hearing. Duterte accepted the the apology but said he cannot stop Calida.

FLAG urged the NTC to “do the right thing” and “protect the free flow of information and the people’s right to know during this time of public health emergency by immediately rescinding the Cease and Desist Order.”

“This is how liberty dies, not with a loud bang but with dead air,” FLAG said.

'Unwelcome gag order'

In a separate statement, the National Union of People's Lawyers called the NTC order a "deplorable assault on free press that further reveals that this administration is more interested in restricting basic freedoms than in containing a pandemic."

It said the order for ABS-CBN to stop broadcasting is a gag order during a time when the country needs decisive medical solutions to a pandemic as well as "credible news sources to help people navigate through the uncertainties of these perilous times."

NUPL said the NTC was aware of a request by a the House panel on legislative franchises to allow the network to operate while waiting for action on bills to renew the franchise.

"The Constitution demands that all gaps, doubts, or gray areas in the law that are tangential to basic freedoms must be resolved in favor of these fundamental rights," the group said.
"For these freedoms are at the core of what makes us human — living not to simply exist and succumb to the grim realities of society imposed by an insensitive social order, but to also interrogate and shape it into something that better reflects our collective hopes and aspirations."




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