Congress can pass ABS-CBN franchise if Duterte certifies it as urgent – lawmaker

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 17) — President Rodrigo Duterte still holds the key for media giant ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation to get a fresh 25-year franchise as Congress can rush its approval before its expiry on March 30 if he certifies it as urgent.

PBA party-list Rep. Jericho Nograles, who sits in the House panel that handles legislative franchises, said Congress can approve the renewal of ABS-CBN’s new franchise in their remaining 15 session days before they adjourn for a seven-week break in March if Duterte moves to expedite its passage.

“If the President certifies it as urgent, then yes, sapat ang 15 days (15 days is enough.) But if the President will not certify the bills as urgent, then hindi sapat ang 15 days (15 days is not enough,)” Nograles told CNN Philippines on Monday.

However, he concedes that Duterte — who has been vocal about his distaste for ABS-CBN over its failure to air his 2016 campaign ads and has vowed to put the TV network out of business — may not certify bills seeking the renewal of its franchise as urgent.

Eleven bills for the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise are still sitting with the House Committee on Legislative Franchises chaired by Palawan 1st District Rep. Franz “Chicoy” Alvarez, and the House leadership is adamant that it will not rush into conducting hearings on these measures.

“We do not see the urgency of a hearing at this point. It will be tedious, contentious, and it threatens to drain the momentum that has allowed the 18th Congress to accomplish so much,” House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said on Facebook.

Nograles said Cayetano has repeatedly assured them that they will hear the bills on ABS-CBN’s franchise, but has never said when this would happen. Cayetano has told reporters that May is the earliest time they can conduct hearings on the TV network’s franchise — two months after its franchise expires.

“Something is getting stuck somewhere. The question is why?” political analyst Dindo Manhit told CNN Philippines.

Critics have said the House is merely following Duterte’s wishes — a claim that lawmakers have denied.

“President Duterte, while he has spoken many times against ABS-CBN, he has also many times said that he will leave it to Congress. So there is that independence,” Nograles said.

Issues vs ABS-CBN can be raised in hearings

Nograles said 90 lawmakers from the House have expressed their willingness to conduct a hearing on the ABS-CBN franchise, which he said would be the proper venue to raise issues hounding the TV network, including Duterte’s complaints against it.

If there’s really a complaint on any business who has a franchise, then let it be out in the public. Let there be debates and discussions about it and ask ABS-CBN to answer,” Manhit said.

For martial law-era Public Information Minister Francisco “Kit” Tatad, there is a need for people to know what “sins” ABS-CBN has committed against the public and that the appropriate penalties should be meted out.

“We have to know as citizens of this Republic why an important medium of free speech is being denied its right to operate,” Tatad, a former senator, said.

Ahead of any action by the House on the ABS-CBN franchise, the Senate will hold its first hearing on the matter on February 27, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel "Migz" Zubiri said.

Senate Grace Poe, who heads the public services committee, told reporters Monday that they seek to independently tackle the franchise issues, even if their House colleagues are yet to calendar a hearing on the matter.

Poe conceded, however, that their hearings on ABS-CBN's franchise would be all for nothing if the House continues to sit on the counterpart measures.

Congress in hotseat

ABS-CBN’s broadcasting franchise is not the only thing hanging in the balance. The renewal of the legislative franchises of its communications subsidiary ABS-CBN Convergence and Sky Cable, which it partly owns, are also pending.

Aside from a battle in Congress, ABS-CBN is also facing another challenge before the Supreme Court, where Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a petition to void the TV network’s franchise over alleged “highly-abusive practices.”

READ: SC the wrong place for complaint vs ABS-CBN – legal expert

Calida alleged that the network allowed foreign investors to take part in its ownership and also went beyond its mandate when it launched a pay-per-view channel on its TV Plus service without approval from the National Telecommunications Commission. ABS-CBN has refuted these allegations.

The government’s top lawyer used a quo warranto petition to void ABS-CBN’s franchise — the same way he used to unseat Maria Lourdes Sereno as chief justice.

Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, who unsuccessfully ran for a Senate seat in 2019 under the opposition ticket, said the ouster of Sereno from the Supreme Court through a quo warranto petition opened the door for Calida to use the same petition to nullify the network’s franchise.

Diokno said that similar to the nullification of Sereno’s appointment to the high court, the administration is “short-circuiting” processes by bypassing Congress.

“The franchise was issued by Congress, so the body that is in the best position to either renew it or not is Congress and that should be respected,” he said.

But until the House moves on the franchise bills, ABS-CBN’s fate hangs in the balance, raising the possibility of a shutdown after March 30 and potentially leaving around 11,000 workers jobless.

“When that happens, and if that happens, then Congress will be in the hot seat and the accountability of Congress and members of Congress will be put in the spotlight,” Nograles said.

ABS-CBN had previously been shut down during the martial rule of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, with the TV network being taken over by Marcos cronies.

The government’s efforts to shut down the network, yet again, has critics drawing comparisons with this era, considered to be the darkest days of press freedom in the Philippines.

Martial law, maraming pagkakamali. Uulitin ba natin ngayon?” Tatad said.

[Translation: There were many mistakes during martial law. Will we repeat them again?]