Senate OKs resolution seeking continued ABS-CBN operations beyond franchise expiry

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More senators on Wednesday said they want the National Telecommunications Commission to grant provisional authority to operate to media giant ABS-CBN as Congress continues to tackle the network's franchise.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 4) — The Senate on Wednesday adopted a resolution backing the issuance of a provisional authority to ABS-CBN and its subsidiaries, which will allow the network to continue to operate beyond the expiry of its franchise.

After nearly two hours of discussions, senators agreed to the proposed resolution "expressing the sense" of the chamber that it wants the National Telecommunications Commission to grant a provisional authority to the Lopez-owned network, which will serve as the legal basis for the media giant to remain on air even if its existing franchise lapses by May 4.

Senator Franklin Drilon clarified during the discussions that the prescribed wording meant that is still up to the NTC to decide if it will grant the temporary license or not.

Several Senate resolutions seek to allow ABS-CBN to continue operating until Congress makes a decision on whether or not it will grant another 25-year franchise to the network. There were no objections.

Senators said that they could not go straight to passing the bills that grant a fresh franchise to the TV conglomerate as the rules dictate that such measures should be approved first by the House of Representatives. This early, Senate President Tito Sotto III as well as Senators Villanueva, Richard Gordon, and Manny Pacquiao explicitly said they will vote to renew the network's franchise.

Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 8 filed also on Wednesday, seeks too the extension of cable TV provider Sky Cable, another company owned by the Lopez family.

Villanueva said they decided to file the resolution for the sake of the 11,071 workers in ABS-CBN whose jobs are in peril with its license to operate expiring.

"There is an urgent need to devise government interventions to ensure that ABS-CBN will continue its operations pending Congress’ deliberations of the network’s franchise renewal," the resolution read.

It also said the shutdown of ABS-CBN, which is seen as a market leader, will affect the broadcast industry and the country's economy.

READ: ABS-CBN workers union asks Duterte to take action in franchise renewal case

RELATED: Bato on ABS-CBN fate: What is 11,000 jobs lost compared to the whole Filipino nation?

Through the measure, Congress said it wants ABS-CBN and Sky Cable to continue operating "under the terms of their existing franchises" pending the approval of bills that would renew their legislative franchises.

The House of Representatives has also formally asked the NTC to give ABS-CBN a provisional permit so it can continue operating while Congress has yet to decide on its franchise renewal bid.

TIMELINE: ABS-CBN franchise

House Committee on Legislative Franchises chair Franz Alvarez sent the NTC a letter on February 26, concurred by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano. They enjoined NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba to grant ABS-CBN provisional authority to stay on air when its franchise expires until such time that Congress decides on its application for a new one.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra previously said at a Senate hearing that Congress, through a concurrent resolution, can authorize the NTC to grant ABS-CBN provisional authority, allowing it to continue operating even after its franchise expires. Cordoba then said it would be easier for the regulator to issue the temporary franchise if the order comes from Congress.

Sotto said a concurrent resolution should no longer be necessary since the NTC has in the past granted provisional permits without Congress resolutions. "What's bugging the NTC? Are they afraid to displease the President?" he asked.

Gordon raised the same question, saying that asking Congress to issue resolutions supporting the grant of a provisional authority for media companies could be abused and may be a breeding ground for corruption.

Duterte has been publicly ranting against ABS-CBN since assuming office, saying that the network refused to carry his campaign commercials even if they have been already paid for. He even told the Lopezes to just sell the company to a new owner just to boost its chances of operating.

Last month, the President accepted the apology offered by ABS-CBN President Carlo Katigbak for airing an anti-Duterte ad during the 2016 campaign which was paid for by the opposition.

READ: ABS-CBN to donate Duterte refund for unaired ads

In a disclosure to the Philippine Stock Exchange on Wednesday, GMA Network clarified that it did not operate with an expired franchise contrary to reports. The Gozon-led firm said its fresh franchise was signed into law on April 21, 2017, which was 22 days before its previous one lapsed. The NTC in the past has allowed other organizations—including the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines— to operate, even while their renewal cases were still being tackled by the legislature.

A 1994 agreement between the House, the NTC, and the broadcasters group Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas provides a mechanism for media entities with expiring Congressional franchises. The memorandum of understanding states that the NTC "shall continue to issue and grant permits or authorizations to operate" for radio and TV stations for a two-year period as long as there is a pending bill seeking to renew its franchise.

However, former Chief Justice Reynato Puno said this could no longer be done, since a 2003 Supreme Court decision, which he himself penned, had ruled that there is a need for an existing license before a corporation can operate. This means the only way for ABS-CBN to stay on air is for Congress to finally renew its 25-year franchise; and a provisional permit from the NTC, even if allowed by Congress, would not be executory.

There are 12 House bills seeking to renew ABS-CBN's franchise, but all remain pending before the Committee on Legislative Franchises. A joint resolution seeking to extend the Lopez-owned network's existing franchise until June 30, 2022 was filed in the House last week by Cebu City Representative Raul Del Mar. A similar measure filed by Cagayan De Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez seeks to extend the TV giant's franchise until May 4, 2021.

RELATED: SolGen wants Supreme Court to forfeit ABS-CBN franchise

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo in a press briefing on Wednesday said that instead of a resolution, Congress should pass a measure granting ABS-CBN another franchise, so President Rodrigo Duterte can sign it into law. Despite Duterte's public pronouncements against the network, Malacañang maintains he does not have anything to do with the delay in the legislative action on its franchise.