House grants franchise to ABS-ABN on 2nd reading, House leaders lauded for doing best to ensure network’s continued operations

Alan Peter S. Cayetano

HOUSE leaders on Thursday lauded the leadership of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano for working on the swift passage on second reading of a proposed law granting a new legislative franchise to the shuttered ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation until October 31 this year.

House Deputy Majority Leader and Mandaluyong City Rep. Neptali “Boyet” Gonzales II and Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said the House leadership led by Cayetano and House Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez have been doing their very best to ensure the giant network will continue to operate after the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) turned its back to issue a provisional authority for ABS-CBN to operate.

Gonzales also clarified that what the House of Representatives has approved on second reading following a Committee of the Whole proceeding was a new franchise for the giant network to operate after its franchise expired last May 4.

“True, the bill seeks to grant ABS CBN a franchise for a limited period of time, up to October 31, 2020 only, but what is important is that the Speaker himself committed that there will be a hearing - a due process to all of this. In a way, this sets the time within which the Committee on Legislative Franchise can thoroughly conduct a committee hearing exhaustively and fairly, wherein all issues can be aired out fully. As assured by the Speaker, ABS CBN will be given an opportunity to answer all the allegations against it. In the same vein, those who oppose the franchise will also be given time to air their opposition as well,” Gonzales explained.

“The surprise move of NTC (against ABS-CBN) which undermined the power of congress, paved the way for the filing of House Bill (HB) 6732 authored by the Speaker of the House, Alan Peter Cayetano, myself and the rest of the House leadership. It may be recalled that because of the assurance of NTC, given under oath on March 10, 2020 in the Committee on Franchise hearing, that it will give ABS CBN a provisional authority to operate beyond May 4,2020, the House - upon the directive of the Speaker, gave its full attention on more important and pressing matters, like addressing the Taal Volcano crisis and the severity of the pandemic brought about by the COVID-19, with the enactment of the Bayanihan We Heal As One Act - in full trust of the earlier agreement with NTC,” Gonzales explained.

“It should be noted that because of the legal precedents - as was my stand even from before - the House can act on the ABS CBN franchise even beyond its so called expiration on May 4, 2020. Hence with all of these put in place, I reiterate that the NTC really blindsided the House. And as aptly stated by the Speaker  - we could have devoted our time to more important matters that will affect the lives of our people, but instead, was forced to abruptly address the ABS CBN franchise because of NTC’s unjustifiable and sudden reneging of its commitment,”

Gonzales pointed out.

Cayetano and other lawmakers rose on the floor to sponsor HB No. 6732, “An Act Granting the ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp. a Franchise to Construct, Install, Operate and Maintain Television and Radio Broadcasting Stations in the Philippines and for Other Purposes.”

Aside from Cayetano, other authors of HB No. 6732 are Romualdez, Gonzales, Deputy Speakers LRay Villafuerte of Camarines Sur, Raneo Abu of Batangas, Dan Fernandez of Laguna, and Roberto Puno of Antipolo City, and Bulacan Rep. Jose Antonio Sy-Alvarado.

On the motion of Romualdez, the Wednesday session in the plenary was initially convened as the Committee of the Whole to approve the measure.

“Providing ABS-CBN with a provisional franchise valid until 31 October 2020 will give both the House of Representatives and the Senate to hear the issues being raised for and against the renewal, and assess, with complete impartiality and fairness, whether or not the network shall be granted a franchise for another twenty-five (25) years,” the bill said.

After the sponsorship speeches, the House, with some 30 warm bodies on the floor and hundreds participating via videoconferencing, approved the measure on second reading through voice voting.

Under Section 5 (Right of the Government) of the bill, a special right is “reserved to the President of the Philippines, in times of war, rebellion, public peril, calamity, emergency, disaster or disturbance of peace and order, to temporarily take over and operate the stations or facilities of the grantee”

Rodriguez hailed the initiative of Cayetano, adding the hearings on bills calling for the renewal or a fresh grant of a 25 year franchise to the radio-tv network should start soon.

“This will give ABS-CBN time and the venue to explain itself on accusations that it allegedly violated the terms and conditions of its expired franchise, labor laws and even the Constitution,” he said.

Having been an immigration commissioner during the Estrada administration, Rodriguez said he is particularly interested to hear the network’s explanation that it allegedly breached the constitutional requirement on 100-percent Filipino ownership of media by selling Philippine depository receipts (PDRs) to foreigners and having an officer who was allegedly an American citizen.

ABS-CBN has denied violating such requirement and the Securities and Exchange Commisison (SEC) has earlier clarified that the issuance of the PDRs at that time did not violate the constitutional prohibition

Gonzales also urged the “ABS CBN then to prepare and ready its answers for all the charges and allegations being raised against the network. Being mindful that the Committee on Franchise is really the proper forum to answer all of this.”

“And to expedite the proceedings as there is obviously a limited time frame, I therefore urge interested parties for or against the issuance of a franchise, to ready their position papers and submit it in the committee to further hasten the process,” said Gonzales.

Rodriguez stressed that the hearings by the committee on legislative franchises should start soon “since the proposed provisional broadcast authority is just for six months.”

He said if the temporary franchise takes effect on the first week of next month, that would give the committee, the House and the Senate less than five months to finish their hearings and the plenary approval process, and to send the final franchise bill to Malacañang.

“We hope we could finish all those processes wherein we hear the oppositors, the relevant government offices and the side of ABS CBN within that short period,” he added.

Rodriguez has authored a resolution giving ABS-CBN a provisional franchise good up to June 30, 2022. He has also filed a bill granting a fresh 25-year broadcasting privilege to the network.

The new franchise bill empowers the President to temporarily suspend the operation of any station or facility on the interest of public safety, security and public welfare or to authorize the temporary use and operation thereof by any agency of the government, upon due compensation to the grantee for the use of said stations or facilities during the period they shall be operated

In his sponsorship speech, Cayetano resumed his attack against the NTC for reneging on its vow last March 10 to grant the network a provisional authority to operate pending congressional deliberations on the various franchise renewal bills.

While there is nothing more important than prioritizing the fight to defeat the coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) pandemic, Cayetano said the NTC’s act has forced the hand of the House to act on the network’s franchise.

“You cannot hope to weigh the value of our immediate response to the pandemic as against the concerns of a private corporation. There simply is no comparison,” said Cayetano. “Yet this is exactly what the NTC has unnecessarily forced us to do by turning back on its commitment given under oath last March 10 that ABS-CBN will be allowed to continue to broadcast.”

Cayetano said all the NTC had to do at the very least was inform Congress that it could no longer make good on its promise to grant a provisional authority because “this piece of legislation may have been acted upon (by the House) then.”

Cayetano also hit back at Solicitor General Jose Calida who was allegedly the one who pressured the NTC to issue the cease and desist order which forced ABS-CBN to close down its TV and radio operations last May 5.

“The Solicitor General and the NTC: To be clear, we take no offense with your legal opinion even if it is contrary to what the DOJ, both houses of Congress, and precedence. What we do object to and take serious offense with, is the furtive manner by which you deliberately and maliciously undermined the authority of Congress,” Cayetano stressed.

Cayetano noted that the NTC gave its testimony and commitment on March 10 but Calida did not express his objections.

“Why did you communicate with Congress? Why choose to remain silent for close to two months, and on the eve of the opening of Congress, come out with your threats to the NTC? As a fellow lawyer and government worker, we should be working together and not trying to bring each other down,” The Speaker asked.

While he understands why some journalists have been blaming him for the closure of the TV network, Cayetano said it is unacceptable for them to pressure the House into approving the franchise renewal without discussing all the issues against the network.

“When you blindly call for the approval of the franchise without having heard all sides of the story. Then you show yourselves not as advocates of a fair and balanced presentation of the facts as journalists are sworn to be, but as plain and simple propagandists. And I cannot respect that. Do not weaponize this issue for your own personal agenda. That is a disservice to the very public in whose name you claim to stand for,” Cayetano pointed out.

The Speaker also scored some ABS-CBN media personalities for allegedly pressuring Congress to prioritize their network’s franchise approval over the passage of the various measures to aimed at protecting lives and cushion the economic impact of COVID-19.

“Some may say they are in the Service of the Filipino but in the middle of crisis, you want to be prioritized over our people’s needs. You’re one of the reasons why there are issue against your network,” he said.

The Speaker again raised the allegation that the network had shown bias in the previous national elections “which our law prohibits.”

“I’m not saying all journalists are like this but in the same way that you paint all politicians as corrupt, all police are abusive, the whole institution is affected by the mistake of some,” he said.

The measure was approved after presidential son Davao City Rep. Paolo Duterte and other House leaders filed a resolution seeking investigate ABS-CBN for the alleged violations of the terms of its 25-year congressional franchise.

The resolution said ABS-CBN Corp. is operating a pay-per-view channel through free-to-air signals in violation of its legislative franchise.

“By charging the public with this pay-per-view Kapamilya Box Office channel through ABS-CBN TV Plus, it has been gaining huge profits at the expense of the public while using the air frequencies provided by the government for free,” said House Resolution (HR) 853.