Battle for ABS-CBN returns to Congress
Employees and supporters light candles at the gate of the ABS-CBN compound in Quezon City as the network went off air on Tuesday night.
Miguel De Guzman

Battle for ABS-CBN returns to Congress

Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) - May 7, 2020 - 12:00am

SolGen: Blame Congress, not NTC

MANILA, Philippines — The battle for the franchise renewal of broadcast giant ABS-CBN is back in Congress after the network signed off on Tuesday night in line with a cease-and-desist order from the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).

Proponents of the bills seeking to approve a fresh 25-year franchise for ABS-CBN in the House of Representatives have pushed for immediate hearing on the measures.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez proposed that the House may opt to grant a temporary franchise to ABS-CBN should the chamber fail to immediately approve the renewal application.

Rodriguez, who chairs the constitutional amendments panel, filed yesterday a joint congressional resolution granting a provisional franchise to the network, valid until the end of the 18th Congress on June 30, 2022 following expiration of its franchise on Monday.

Three days after warning the NTC against issuing a provisional authority to ABS-CBN, Solicitor General Jose Calida yesterday defended the commission order stopping the operations of the media giant after its franchise lapsed on May 4.

“Why blame the NTC when they are only following the law?” Calida, government’s lead legal defender, said.

“Without a valid and subsisting franchise from Congress, the NTC cannot allow any broadcasting entity to operate,” he added.

Calida passed the buck to Congress.

“The bill renewing ABS-CBN’s franchise has been pending in Congress since 2016. The question we should be asking is, why hasn’t Congress acted on it? Who is at fault here?” he asked.

Last February, Calida filed a petition before the Supreme Court to void the network’s franchise for alleged violations.

“Now the remedy is for the House to speed up its hearings on my proposal for a temporary franchise and for the grant of a new 25-year broadcasting service privilege,” he said.

Rodriguez also proposed that any new franchise granted by Congress should include an express provision authorizing the NTC to provisionally allow a franchisee with an expired franchise and a renewal application pending with the House to continue operating until its application is approved or rejected.

He believes that the matter might not be addressed immediately if brought before the courts.

“Filing cases in court or appealing the NTC order before the Office of the President will be useless because the battle is now with Congress,” Rodriguez told The STAR.

Lawmakers urged the House committee on legislative franchises to set a hearing on the bills even when they are supposed to prioritize measures to address the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis, including the economic recovery stimulus program and the protocols for a “new normal.”

Albay Rep. Joey Salceda and Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza said the House would be able to approve the franchise renewal application in just one week, if there would be support from their leadership.

“We can actually approve the franchise in just one day if we really wanted to. But if we need to debate, we can have the vote in one week and we are certain that we will win,” Atienza said.

Salceda agreed with Atienza, saying the panel has prepared for the hearings until the NTC “preempted” the calendar and issued the cease and desist order (CDO).

“We are predisposed to approve the franchise renewal. We can hear and approve it in one week,” Salceda said in an interview.

Salceda said there is a need to address the issue, citing a study his team conducted showing that the ABS-CBN shutdown could lead to 2,600 new COVID-19 infections due to increase in social interactions by over 15 million viewers of the network.

Salceda, who chairs the ways and means committee, admitted that the matter would be a “distraction” to Congress that is supposed to focus on COVID-19 measures.

Legislative franchise committee chairman Franz Alvarez expressed disappointment over the NTC’s action and vowed to set a hearing soon on over 20 pending ABS-CBN franchise bills.

He said officials of the NTC would be summoned to explain why they issued the CDO despite their commitment during a hearing last March that they would allow ABS-CBN to remain on-air while the House deliberates on the franchise renewal application.

NTC officials have explained that the action was based on the opinion of their legal division, notwithstanding the threat of Calida to file graft charges against them should they allow the network to continue airing with an expired franchise.

Senate to pass franchise bill

The Senate will immediately take up the franchise application of ABS-CBN as soon as the House of Representatives sends it to the chamber for approval, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said yesterday.

“I’m optimistic once the franchise bill of ABS-CBN is approved in the House, we’ll pass it,” Sotto said.

Sen. Sonny Angara said the Senate committee on public services, which handles franchise applications, can start hearings and stop short of releasing its committee report in the network’s papers pending the transmittal of the House version.

“We’re ready to approve it. You’ve heard many senators speak out in support of the measure,” Angara told reporters via Zoom.

He said the House leaders must take their cue from Malacañang that President Duterte has accepted the apology of ABS-CBN and would not begrudge congressmen if they approve its franchise application.

Angara said Filipinos feel the loss of the shutdown of the 66-year-old network, which has not only provided accurate and timely information, but also entertainment amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Sen. Nancy Binay lamented the expected loss of jobs with the shutdown.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said the NTC order was the “last thing we need in this season of death is an issue that rends our people apart when their attention and energy should be focused on fighting our common enemy.”

He said ABS-CBN was also using its clout and reach to raise money for COVID-19 victims and those needing help due to loss of jobs.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the NTC order violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

“It is public knowledge that the NTC has allowed and is allowing franchisees to operate even after the lapse of their franchises as long as the bills renewing their franchises are pending before Congress,” Drilon said.

He cited PT&T, SMART Communications, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, TV5, Subic Broadcasting, to name a few, which were allowed to operate despite expired franchises.

“Why was ABS-CBN singled out here?” Drilon asked.

Cayetano mum

Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano has remained mum on the ABS-CBN franchise issue as he was blamed by minority lawmakers for the shutdown of the broadcast giant.

As of press time yesterday, Cayetano has yet to respond to reporters’ requests for comment on the issue.

Atienza and Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman both pinned the blame on the House leadership for the failure of Congress to deliberate on and grant the franchise renewal application.

Atienza alleged that Cayetano “did not do his job” by sitting on the ABS-CBN franchise bills since last year.

“Whether or not the franchise would be approved, at least you should have acted on it and not just sit on it,” Atienza said.

Lagman believed that Cayetano and NTC commissioner Gamaliel Cordova were “playing charades” after the latter issued the CDO despite an earlier commitment to allow the network’s operations after expiration of its franchise.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said yesterday the House of Representatives has “sunk lower” for failure to act on ABS-CBN franchise renewal bills.

He also blamed the NTC for issuing a CDO against ABS-CBN.

‘Abolish NTC’

House Minority Leader Benny Abante has pushed for the NTC abolition.

“What the NTC did to Congress should not be tolerated. This is an open defiance and an insult to Congress. The commission should be abolished and its functions and powers transferred to the DICT (Department of Information and Communications Technology),” he said in a privilege speech.

Senior Deputy Majority Leader Boying Remulla moved to strike Abante’s remarks off the record because of the House rule prohibiting discussions in the plenary of matters still pending before a committee.

House members who attended the mixed physical and virtual session supported Remulla’s motion.

Employees’ salary

Employees of ABS-CBN will continue receiving their salaries despite the closure of the television network, according to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said the closure of ABS-CBN does not automatically extinguish the corporate existence of the company.

“It will not affect the benefits and status of workers. Their employment continues,” Bello explained.

He said ABS-CBN should not terminate its workers because the company still exists.

“Only its franchise was put on hold. It does not affect the existence of the corporation so the workers shall stay,” Bello explained.

To save the jobs of 11,000 ABS-CBN employees, different labor groups yesterday launched an online signature drive for the granting of franchise for the television network.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said the shutdown of ABS-CBN is a big loss to the country.

Año lamented the closure of ABS-CBN, which is among the media outfits helping the government in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

National Task Force against COVID-19 response chief implementer Carlito Galvez Jr. also recognized the vital role played by the media in the dissemination of information to the public. – Paolo Romero, Pia Lee-Brago, Emmanuel Tupas, Rodel Clapano, Mayen Jaymalin

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