House panel rejects new franchise for ABS-CBN

Edu Punay - The Philippine Star
House panel rejects new franchise for ABS-CBN
Workers and artists rally outside the TV station’s compound in Quezon City after a House committee voted to deny the network a franchise yesterday.
Boy Santos

MANILA, Philippines — The House of Representatives yesterday rejected the franchise renewal application of ABS-CBN, putting an end to its flagship Channel 2 after 53 years.

Seventy regular members of the committee on legislative franchises and House leaders who stood as ex-officio members voted to thumb down the bills seeking to grant the Lopez-owned network a fresh 25-year franchise.

Only 11 panel members voted to grant the franchise; two inhibited while one abstained.

Malacañang distanced itself from the House move, pointing to the independence of the legislature as a co-equal branch and saying President Duterte had already forgiven the network for what he had denounced as its unfair treatment of him during the 2016 election campaign.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque also denied that the House rejection would have a chilling effect on mass media, saying that the main business of ABS-CBN is not news but entertainment.

The 70 voted to “deny the application of ABS-CBN Corporation for a franchise to construct, install, establish, operate and maintain radio and broadcasting stations in the Philippines.”

The House panel specifically cited the “American citizenship of ABS-CBN chairman emeritus Eugenio ‘Gabby’ Lopez III and doubtful Filipino citizenship and allegiance to the Philippines,” the possible violation of the constitutional prohibition against foreign ownership in mass media, numerous violations of terms of the franchise, questionable tax avoidance schemes, apparent use of a dummy and “less than exemplary labor practices.”

Eleven panel members, including proponents of the franchise bills and supporters, voted to grant the franchise application, but were clearly outnumbered.

They are Reps. Sol Aragones, Christopher de Venecia, Carlos Zarate, Gab Bordado, Vilma Santos-Recto, Lianda Bolilia, Ping Tejada, Beny Abante, Stella Quimbo, Mujiv Hataman and Edward Maceda.

Two members inhibited while Quezon City Rep. Alfred Vargas abstained from the voting.

The panel resolved the matter after holding 12 marathon hearings over almost two months following adjournment sine die of Congress.

With the rejection of the franchise bills at the committee level, ABS-CBN’s application no longer reached the House plenary for deliberations by over 300 members of the chamber.

A majority voted to approve the resolution and report of a three-member technical working group (TWG) that recommended the denial of the application based on “consensus” after the summation of arguments during the hearings.

“The TWG, after due consideration of the testimonies, documents, submissions and arguments, has recommended to deny the franchise application of ABS-CBN Corp.,” read the resolution adopted by the panel during a one-hour hearing.

In the adopted report, the TWG held that the ABS-CBN franchise application cannot be linked to constitutional press freedom.

“By no means can this franchise application be related to press freedom. It is what it is – a denial of a privilege granted by the State because the applicant was seen as undeserving of the grant of a legislative franchise,” the report stated.

“Such a scenario is totally inconsistent with the nature of legislative franchises as a mere privilege and never a matter of right. Wherefore, in view of the foregoing, the technical working group respectfully recommends the DENIAL of the franchise application of ABS CBN Corporation,” it added.

The TWG members include Deputy Speaker Pablo John Garcia, Reps. XJ Romualdo of Camiguin and Stella Quimbo of Marikina, who dissented from the resolution.

The committee cited six issues tackled during the hearings that, “taken collectively, weigh heavily against the grant of legislative franchise to ABS-CBN.”

One of the vocal congressmen against the franchise application, Anakalusugan Rep. Mike Defensor, lauded the TWG for its exhaustive report.

“It was a comprehensive report by the TWG. They lined up all issues. They said the citizenship issue wasn’t clear, but all the other issues they found the problems,” he explained in an interview after the voting.

Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, who earlier called on colleagues to vote based on their conscience, asked for parties and the public to respect the decision.

“I pray that despite our differences, we will eventually come to respect the decision of the committee and its members and begin to move forward in rebuilding the relationships that have been strained by this issue,” he said in a statement.

“The House leadership asks that the people read the findings carefully in order to appreciate the reasons for their decision. And for those who do not agree, at the least, understand why the decision had to be so,” the Speaker said.

Cayetano lauded the panel for “a fair, impartial, thorough and comprehensive hearing on the franchise application of the Lopez-owned ABS-CBN corporation.”

“Because of the highly partisan nature of this issue, we accepted from the start that there would be those who will vehemently disagree with the committee’s decision, no matter what they resolve,” he added.

On Thursday, Cayetano slammed Vice President Leni Robredo for giving a “clueless instruction” to Congress on its priorities.

Cayetano specifically took exception to the public pronouncement of Robredo that Congress should pass measures to benefit frontliners in the battle against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) instead of “tackling issues that are not helping.”

“We are not sleeping on the job here in Congress. I say this for the benefit of our Vice President who, despite appearing to be clueless to the real work of this Congress, nonetheless feels it’s her duty to instruct this House on how it should conduct its business,” he said in a speech before the summation of hearings on ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal application.

“We are doing our jobs, the hearings are just not being broadcast live on television,” he added in Filipino.

The Speaker reminded the Vice President of measures quickly passed by the chamber to address the pandemic – even holding a special session during recess last March.

He also cited several bills that the chamber approved before the adjournment of session in June like the Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy of the Philippines (ARISE Philippines Act); the COVID-19 Unemployment Reduction Economic Stimulus (CURES) Act of 2020; the Better Normal for the Workplace, Communities and Public Spaces Act of 2020; and the COVID-19-Related Anti-Discrimination Act.

Cayetano claimed that Robredo had asked Congress to immediately resolve the franchise issue.

“When we were not taking up the ABS-CBN franchise, the Vice President said we should take it up. Now that we are taking it up, she said there are many more critical issues that should be addressed,” he said.

Congress prerogative

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. said the rejection of ABS-CBN franchise renewal was a “prerogative of Congress” that executive officials “recognize.”

Roque said the Palace has maintained a “neutral stance on the issue as it respects the separation of powers between the two co-equal branches government.”

In a separate interview with dzBB, Roque said opponents of the House decision should just accept the development and vote for a new set of congressmen in 2022.

Speaking in Filipino, he also said the denial of the franchise would not have a chilling effect on mass media because the core business of ABS-CBN is not news but entertainment.

“Much as we want to work with the aforesaid media network, we have to abide by the resolution of the House committee,” he said.

The officials’ claims run counter to Duterte’s public statements openly castigating the TV station and wishing its closure.

Since he assumed office, Duterte has been vocal against the TV network, apparently for attacking him during the last leg of the presidential campaign. He also claimed that ABS-CBN did not air his campaign ads.

Duterte said in December last year that he would see to it that ABS-CBN’s franchise would not be renewed.

“Your franchise will end next year. If you are expecting that it will be renewed, I’m sorry. You’re out! I will see to it that you’re out,” Duterte said.

His chief legal adviser and former spokesman Salvador Panelo said the Office of the President respects the decision of the lawmakers.

“The decision to grant or deny a franchise, as we have repeatedly said, lies solely on the members of Congress, particularly its committee on legislative franchises,” he said.

Panelo said there is jurisprudence that supports the fact that “a franchise is a mere privilege granted by the State through its legislative body.”

“In view thereof, the executive branch cannot – and has not meddled and will never interfere – with the affairs of a co-equal, separate and independent branch of the government,” he said.

Panelo pointed out that ABS-CBN, as well as those against its franchise application, were given the opportunity to give their respective sides, as due process requires.

“This is a democratic process and we, in the executive branch, must respect its outcome,” he said.  “We leave it to the collective wisdom of the committee on legislative franchises apropos its denial of ABS-CBN’s franchise application. The proceeding was transparent, as it should be, with the public being apprised of its developments, of which they are entitled,” Panelo added.  Christina Mendez

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