Calida pins blame on Congress, says NTC only followed law in shutting ABS-CBN

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 6) — Solicitor General Jose Calida came to the defense of the National Telecommunications Commission, which is under fire for its order to stop ABS-CBN's TV and radio broadcasts.

“Why blame NTC when they are only following the law,” Calida said in a statement on Wednesday, a day after the ABS-CBN went off air on NTC's cease and desist order.

Calida stressed the NTC could not allow any broadcasting entity to operate without a franchise from Congress.

“The bill renewing ABS-CBN’s franchise has been pending in Congress since 2016,” Calida said. “The question we should be asking is, why hasn’t Congress acted on it? Who is at fault here?”

Numerous bills have been filed seeking to grant ABS-CBN Corporation a fresh 25-year franchise.

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said lawmakers were too busy with more pressing matters, and instead asked the NTC to give the Lopez-owned network provisional authority pending the renewal of its franchise. In February, Cayetano said those who disagree with him could take the case to the Supreme Court, adding that he is ready to face the consequences, even if it would mean being imprisoned for it. The Senate also passed a resolution asking the NTC to allow ABS-CBN to continue its operations.

The NTC earlier agreed to do so, but on the eve of the expiry of ABS-CBN's franchise, Calida warned that the regulator's commissioners may face graft charges since allowing the network to keep on airing in the absence of a franchise would be "unlawful."

ABS-CBN's franchise expired on Monday. The next day, NTC ordered it to stop broadcasting.

Grave abuse?

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon called NTC's move "grave abuse of discretion," questioning why it did not grant provisional authority to ABS-CBN now, when it had done so with other media entities in the past.

In an interview with CNN Philippines, Drilon stressed that all franchise bills must first be passed by the House before it can be approved by the Senate. Once passed, it will be up to Duterte whether to veto, sign into a law, or let it lapse into a law.

But in ABS-CBN's case, both houses of Congress said the NTC should grant provisional authority, in line with the opinion of the Department of Justice, Drilon said. He also called out Calida, the government's top lawyer, for conflict of interest.

"Si SolGen Calida with all due respect, siya po ang abogado ng NTC bilang SolGen. E sa aming mga abogado ang tawag diyan ay conflict at practice na hindi dapat gawin dahil hindi mo naman dapat kasuhan ang kliyente mo. You should defend your client," Drilon said.

[Translation: SolGen Calida, with all due respect, is the lawyer of the NTC as SolGen. To us lawyers, that is conflict and a practice that should not be done since you cannot file a case against your client. You should defend your client.]

Calida said he was only fulfilling his "duty to advise the NTC of what is legal or not."

What's next for ABS-CBN?

The fight is not over for ABS-CBN, since the NTC's order can be taken to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, questioning the commission's grave abuse of discretion, Drilon said.

ABS-CBN's shutdown hogged headlines as more than 11,000 media workers lost their jobs amid the coronavirus disease pandemic. It was heavily criticized as an attack on press freedom, since President Rodrigo Duterte had publicly lashed out at the ABS-CBN and warned that he would block the renewal of its franchise, over the network's refusal to carry his campaign commercials even if they have been already paid for.

In late February, Duterte accepted ABS-CBN's apology for airing a political advertisement of the opposition in 2016 which offended him. He was then a mayor gunning for the presidential post.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque on Wednesday said Duterte is "completely neutral" on the issue, and lawmakers should act on ABS-CBN's franchise renewal bid without worrying about what the President would feel.