Denouement
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - February 29, 2020 - 12:00am

The ABS-CBN franchise renewal saga is not going on forever. This is a story that has likely reached its climax and began its denouement.

The peak might have been reached last Monday, during the course of the Senate public hearing on the controversy. During this hearing the points of contention were laid out and tackled.

Some might have criticized the propriety of that hearing called by Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the committee on public services. By strict application of the rule, the Senate comes into the picture during a franchise renewal process only after the House has acted. Also, the Senate public services committee may not be the proper panel to discuss the matter.

Those concerns notwithstanding, the hearing might have turned public opinion decisively in favor of the giant broadcasting network. It was a coup in public diplomacy. The network, in all of its public affairs platforms, made sure its positions on the matter were fully amplified.

The network has the advantage not only of having a majority of senators sympathetic to its cause but also of having a personable CEO to articulate its positions on the issue raised. Instead of ranting and raving about some inflated threat to press freedom, ABS-CBN president Carlo L. Katigbak calmly and dispassionately elaborated the network’s side.

Even on the arcane matter of the Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs), Katigbak was actually intelligible. The matter of the PDRs, amounting to about a fourth of the network’s capital, is the crux of the Supreme Court petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida.

The Supreme Court, nevertheless, will have the final say on the matter of whether PDRs held by foreign investors represent ownership of a domestic company. The 1987 Constitution requires all mass media companies to be 100 percent Filipino-owned.

The hearing properly lined up representatives from the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Telecommunications Commission. All these representatives said the network paid all taxes due and violated no standing regulations in the course of their operations.

Even the matter about collecting money for pay-per-view programs was cleared by the regulators as properly covered by the network’s franchise. This was the issue over which independent cable operators raised objections to the renewal of the franchise. 

The hearing provided ABS-CBN the opportunity to explain the non-airing of some of President Duterte’s campaign ads during the 2016 elections. The network showed documents that all the ads paid for national airing by the network were duly put out. Some of the contracted advertising due for airing in local stations could not be aired because of the restrictions on how much broadcast time may be allocated for political adverts.

The network’s explanation, and Katigbak’s apology for failure to air, seems to have appeased President Duterte. He accepted the apology and appears to have taken back his earlier rants about being unfairly treated by the network.

It turns out the network offered to refund the ads that failed to air. The Duterte camp earlier rejected the refund. Now, the President has consented to have the outstanding refund to be donated to a charitable organization of the network’s choice.

Following the signal from the President, both Sen. Bong Go and Sen. Manny Pacquiao endorsed the renewal of the network’s franchise. A few days later, Davao mayor Sara Duterte issued a statement supporting the renewal of the franchise.

The tide has turned, it seems.

Political

Still, the road to franchise renewal is not fully cleared.

The matter of the PDRs could still be deliberated, entirely within the framework of constitutional law, by the Supreme Court. Here the rules of precedence and magisterial interpretation hold sway.

Then there is the House of Representatives which holds jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to franchises. Our political class, long ago, decided that elected representatives of the people ought to have jurisdiction over giving out finite public resources such as bandwidth.

Today, in our more market-friendly world, it might seem more just to auction franchises rather than give them away for free on the basis of legislative fiat. But the practice of Congress handing out franchises is embedded in our law.

The House of Representatives jealously guards its power to issue franchises. That power has benefitted the political class that wields it.

It seems the ABS-CBN franchise renewal has been inadvertently caught up in the factional scrimmage between House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and his emerging rival, Lord Allan Jay Velasco. Cayetano believes the manifesto calling for immediate congressional action on the ABS-CBN franchise was a tool used by the Velasco faction to undermine the former’s leadership and perhaps cause a change in leadership ahead of the agreed term-sharing schedule.

The renewal issue is political in another way.

Allies of Cayetano may argue that the exclusive jurisdiction the House enjoys over the issuance of franchises implies the elected representatives are empowered to make a political evaluation of franchise awards. They are entitled to evaluate a franchise application on the measure of how the public interest is to be best served.

That line of argument takes the matter to another plane, beyond those issues that were addressed during the Senate hearing and outside the parameters of the issues submitted for judicial interpretation. No matter how scrupulously ABS-CBN may have observed the regulations governing its franchise, the “representatives of the people” may decide they network falls short of what is the best public interest.

Here the politicians may raise concerns over market dominance, past partisanship and other such things. That brings this case to another universe.

ABS-CBN DENOUEMEN
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