Lawmakers confident of votes to renew ABS-CBN franchise

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Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives called on their colleagues to begin discussions to renew the franchise of ABS-CBN, with some seeing Solicitor General Jose Calida's petition before the Supreme Court as trampling upon Congress' authority on franchises.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 10) — Lawmakers called on their colleagues to begin discussions to renew the franchise of ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation, with some confident of enough support to get the bill passed.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel "Migz" Zubiri told reporters that majority of senators favor renewing the network's franchise, which has six weeks left before it expires.

At the House of Representatives, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said he has gathered 81 signatures from colleagues to back his resolution calling on the House Committee on Legislative Franchises to already discuss 11 bills seeking to renew ABS-CBN's legal mandate for another 25 years and send it to plenary for debates and voting.

A counterpart bill at the Senate has also not moved at the committee level.

Lagman, along with other lawmakers, denounced Solicitor General Jose Calida's quo warranto petition before the Supreme Court seeking to cancel the TV network's franchise. The government's top lawyer claimed ABS-CBN engaged in "highly abusive practices" that went against the Constitution, such as letting foreigners own and control the network through Philippine Depositary Receipts, and creating KBO as an entirely new channel without regulatory approval.

ABS-CBN: 'We did not violate the law'

"The quo warranto petition preempts or usurps the sole authority of the Congress to extend or not an existing and expiring franchise like that of ABS-CBN Corporation," Lagman said in a statement.

Agusan del Norte Rep. Lawrence Fortun, who also submitted a bill renewing the franchise of the Lopez-owned network, warned that the House panel could use this court filing as another reason to delay the proceedings.

"This is the sad picture I’m seeing: the committee may not hear the franchise renewal bills saying there’s a pending matter in the Supreme Court related to the validity of ABS-CBN’s current franchise," Fortun said. "By the time the Supreme Court sets to resolve the petition after parties have sent in their answers and comments, the current franchise would have already expired and there would be nothing to revoke in the first place."

But Senator Joel Villanueva insisted that Congress has its own power to grant or reject legislative franchises for media and other public utility companies and services, regardless of a pending court case.

Duterte to ABS-CBN: Next year, you're out

Deputy Speaker and Batangas Rep. Vilma Santos-Recto, better known as the Star for All Seasons of national TV, added: "Let the Supreme Court evaluate the contents or merits of the petition. I believe House Committee on Franchises should once and for all hear the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN."

The TV network maintained that it did not violate the law, while pointing out the apparent intimidation by the state. Media groups have also denounced the apparent crackdown on press freedom, following a similar tack taken towards online outlet Rappler.

Laguna Rep. Sol Aragones, who was once an ABS-CBN reporter, said separately that lawmakers should work fast as Congress will go on break by March 11, leaving just a month to finish deliberations on the bills.

Temporary fix

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said there could be a quick fix to ABS-CBN's franchise expiring on March 30.

He said the network can actually secure a provisional authority from the National Telecommunications Commission. "The problem is, how can they go against the Executive's wish not to extend the franchise?"

"All of our members of the House and Senate should unite and we should not allow this encroachment," Rodriguez said in a briefing. "This will be a direct assault on press freedom... For these reasons, I believe this case should not have been filed at all."

Other solons like Albay Rep. Joey Salceda took offense with Calida's move, saying it violates the independence of the Legislative.

The University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication denounced the quo warranto plea, saying it was "another blatant attack" on the freedom of the press, which could rob Filipinos of a public watchdog for possible abuses in government.

Sen. Panfilo "Ping" Lacson said Congress cannot be hindered from exercising its powers to decide on franchises, in the same way that Calida went to file the petition before the high court.

CNN Philippines' Xianne Arcangel and Joyce Ilas contributed to this report.