NTC can allow ABS-CBN to operate despite Calida warning – senators
MANILA, Philippines — Despite the warning of the government’s chief lawyer, senators on insisted on Monday that ABS-CBN can be granted provisional authority to operate pending its franchise renewal, adding that it would be “highly irregular” and “questionable” to close down one of the major networks in the country amid the COVID-19 crisis.
On Sunday, Solicitor General Jose Calida warned the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) against issuing ABS-CBN provisional authority to operate without a franchise.
He added that the NTC could not rely on a letter of the House leadership and a Senate resolution that both urged the commission to do so.
But Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, a former justice secretary, questioned Calida’s authority to counter the decision of Congress to allow ABS-CBN’s continued operations.
“The grant of a franchise is a sovereign power granted in Congress. Congress already wrote to the NTC. What power does the Solicitor General have to contradict the body that acts as the repository of the sovereign power?” Drilon said in a message to reporters.
“The OSG [Office of the Solicitor General] cannot say that an act of the legislative or an agency of the executive branch is illegal. That is for the Courts to decide,” he added.
The Senate leader further pointed out that Calida could not reverse the opinion of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who earlier said that there was “sufficient equitable basis to allow broadcast entities to continue operating while the bills for the renewal of their respective franchise remain pending with Congress.”
“Assuming that the OSG and the NTC take conflicting positions, the Administrative Code provides that all disputes involving questions of law shall be settled or decided by the Secretary of Justice,” Drilon said.
“There is nothing in the law which allows the OSG to overturn an opinion by the Secretary of Justice,” he added.
Calida, in his statement on Sunday, also said the NTC commissioners could face charges under the country’s anti-graft and corruption laws should they grant ABS-CBN provisional authority to operate without a franchise.
However, Drilon said there is a “conflict of interest there when the lawyer threatens to sue its client.”
“The OSG should be reminded of its mandate under the law. Under the Revised Administrative Code, the OSG shall act as lawyer of government agencies including the NTC,” he said. “It is NTC and not OSG that is granted regulatory functions under the law.”
Meanwhile, both Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri and Senator Risa Hontiveros found Calida’s warning “questionable.”
“It is very strange to me why the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) insists on contradicting the uniform views of not only both houses of Congress but also the DOJ itself — to which the OSG is attached,” Hontiveros said in a statement.
“Even more questionable is why the government’s chief counsel insists on shutting down a broadcast network in the middle of a health emergency and depriving the public of a critical means to receive timely and accurate information,” she added.
She further said Calida should just focus on supporting the government’s response against the COVID-19 crisis instead of having “misplaced priorities.”
Zubiri, for his part, underscored the need for proper information dissemination in light of the health emergency.
“We need information dissemination. We need information gathering. If we’ll shut down a major network, for me [that] is highly irregular at this point in time and questionable. The country’s major networks should keep delivering information,” Zubiri said, partly in Filipino, in a teleconference with reporters.
He added that there would be no reason why the NTC could not grant ABS-CBN a provisional authority to operate while Congress was deliberating on the media giant’s franchise renewal.
“There is already precedence wherein the NTC has issued provisional authority for franchises that have expired but pending in Congress,” Zubiri said.
“It’s very clear that the NTC may give provisional authority to those applying for franchises and their franchises have expired so I do not see any reason why they should not do so,” he added.
For Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, issues regarding the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN have already been “settled during our hearings.”
“I expect the NTC to allow ABS[-CBN] to continue to operate until Congress makes a final decision re franchise within this Congress,” he said in a message to reporters.
Sen. Sonny Angara, meanwhile, said that Calida’s warning to NTC appeared “to be in conflict” with Guevarra’s earlier opinion that the commission could issue ABS-CBN provisional authority.
“Congress has expressed the same opinion and it has support in past legislative and executive practice,” he added.
Congress resumed its regular session on Monday after it went on a two-month break early in March without passing a law extending the franchise of ABS-CBN for another 25 years.
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