Lawmakers assert authority over ABS-CBN franchise
MANILA, Philippines — Lawmakers on Monday asserted Congress’ “exclusive privilege” to grant or dissolve any legislative franchise, including ABS-CBN’s, arguing there was no reason for the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) to shut down the network after its license expired.
Palawan Rep. Franz Alvarez, chair of the House legislative franchises committee, said only Congress had the power to grant or deny the renewal of ABS-CBN’s 25-year broadcasting license, which expired on Monday.
“With the legal opinion of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the authority given by the House of Representatives, there is no reason for ABS-CBN to discontinue or stop [its] … operations,” Alvarez said in a statement.
Exclusive right and jurisdiction
“As far as Congress is concerned, ABS-CBN should now be allowed to stay open after May 4, and not be closed by [the] NTC or any government agency,” Isabela Rep. Antonio Albano, the committee vice chair, said in a separate statement.
Albano noted that the House of Representatives and the Senate had written letters directing the NTC to grant a provisional authority to ABS-CBN to keep operating beyond May 4.
“In our Constitution, it’s provided that Congress has the exclusive right and jurisdiction on legislative franchises. And under this exclusive privilege, we can grant or dissolve any legislative franchises,” Albano said.
“And with that power, we as a Congress have exercised that power by asking [the] NTC to provide a provisional authority to ABS-CBN, while we deliberate whether to reject or grant the ABS-CBN franchise,” he said.
Albano said it was especially important during the coronavirus pandemic to keep broadcast networks on the air.
“ABS-CBN provides much-needed information that [the] government has been giving to reach everyone and keep us abreast on vital information that can spell the difference in saving lives and helping our country as we speak,” he said.
President Duterte had repeatedly vowed to block the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise, citing the network’s failure to air his ads during his campaign for Malacañang in 2016.
The network explained that time limits under the election law prohibited it from running some of the ads, and offered to return the President’s money.
Mr. Duterte declined the offer and suggested that the network give it to charity.
Time for Congress to decide
In his statement, Alvarez stressed that “Congress has the exclusive authority to grant, deny, extend, revoke or modify broadcast franchises.”
“In fact, it is the House of Representatives that has primary jurisdiction to make an initial determination whether an application for a legislative franchise should be granted or denied,” he said.
“Consistent with precedents, the committee enjoined the [NTC] to allow ABS-CBN to operate until such time that the House of Representatives makes a decision on its application,” Alvarez said.
“This will give Congress sufficient time to assess the qualifications of the applicant and make a complete review of the positions of the different stakeholders,” he added.
“The power of Congress to legislate is complete, full and plenary. A legislative franchise is a law and by deciding whether to grant or deny a franchise, it is passing a law and making a policy. It should be allowed the courtesy to complete the exercise of its power,” he said.
ABS-CBN’s broadcasting license expired on Monday with its application for renewal still pending on the House legislative franchises committee.
At least 11 bills for the renewal of the network’s franchise have been filed in Alvarez’s committee since August 2019. The committee has held only two hearings on the matter.
During the March 10 hearing, Telecommunication Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba assured the lawmakers that the NTC would issue a provisional authority to the network to operate beyond May 4, citing a legal opinion issued by the DOJ.
But Solicitor General Jose Calida issued a statement on Sunday, arguing that there was no legal basis for the grant of a provisional authority. He warned the telecommunication commissioners that they faced prosecution should they do so.
Agusan del Norte Rep. Lawrence Fortun, however, said on Monday that it would be irresponsible on the NTC’s part if it broke its promise to the House leaders to allow ABS-CBN to operate until Congress reached a decision on its franchise renewal.
In a statement, Fortun said the legal skirmish should be “set aside” as the leaders of both the House and the Senate “have already officially expressed an unmistakable intent to grant the network provisional authority.”
“[T]he NTC should, as it has in the past, issue now that provisional authority,” he said.
It’s up to NTC
“It is also most unwise to close down a network of at least 11,000 workers at this time of crisis when even no less than the [Department of Labor and Employment] itself has admitted to scarcity of funds to respond to needs of the hardly hit labor sector,” Fortun said.
“To do so would be to deliberately exacerbate the crisis the country is facing now,” he said.
Malacañang said it was up to the NTC to decide the matter.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the President would implement the decision of the NTC, a quasi-judicial body, on whether ABS-CBN should get a provisional authority to operate beyond May 4.
“The solicitor general is an alter-ego of the President and he wrote the NTC. This is a matter that should be dealt with by the NTC as a quasi-judicial body,” Roque told a press briefing.
He said the government would “apply the exhaustion of administrative remedies” and that the Palace would ultimately “defer to whatever ruling” the NTC would hand down.
“We will wait for the response of the NTC, and the President will implement whatever the NTC decides,” Roque said.
Several senators rallied around ABS-CBN, assailing Calida for threatening the telecommunication commissioners with prosecution.
Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said the legal questions about the provisional authority had already been settled after Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told a Senate hearing that the NTC had authority to grant temporary licenses to broadcast companies.
“I don’t see any legal impediment for ABS-CBN to continue operations,” Zubiri said in an online press briefing. “Secretary Guevarra has made a public statement for everyone to hear that the NTC may do so if Congress allows them to do so, which Congress [did],” he said.
Conflict of interest
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon reminded Calida and the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), which is under the administrative supervision of the DOJ, about their role as counsel of state agencies under the Revised Administrative Code.
“There is a conflict of interest there when the lawyer threatens to sue [his] client. It is the NTC and not [the] OSG that is granted regulatory functions under the law,” said Drilon, a former justice secretary.
“The OSG cannot say that an act of the legislative or an agency of the executive branch is illegal. That is for the courts to decide,” Drilon said.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said it was “very strange” for the OSG to continue to oppose the position taken by the House, the Senate and even the DOJ on the matter.
“Even more questionable is why [Calida] 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,” Hontiveros said.
“The OSG has misplaced priorities and should just focus its energies on supporting the government efforts amid the pandemic,” she said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said he expected the NTC officials to honor their commitment to the Senate that they would grant a temporary permit to ABS-CBN.
“That issue has been settled during our hearings. I expect the NTC to allow ABS-CBN to continue to operate until Congress makes a final decision on its franchise [extension],” Recto said.
—WITH REPORTS FROM JULIE M. AURELIO AND MARLON RAMOS
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