House approves ABS-CBN provisional franchise on 2nd reading
MANILA, Philippines — Pressed by public outcry, the House of Representatives on Wednesday moved to pass a bill giving ABS-CBN a temporary license to go back on the air for five months while Congress decides whether to grant a fresh 25-year franchise to the country’s largest broadcast network.
That would give the House and the Senate until the end of October to deliberate on the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, which was forced to shut down its radio and television stations on May 5 a day after its license expired.
House Bill No. 6732, authored by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and seven other House leaders, will give a provisional franchise to ABS-CBN that will be valid until Oct. 31, 2020, “unless sooner revoked or canceled.”
It was approved on second reading in rapid fashion during the plenary session attended online by most of the chamber’s 302 members.
The bill, however, will face two challenges before it is passed into law: first, it will need the concurrence of the Senate and second, it will require the signature of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has repeatedly threatened to block the network’s franchise.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon expressed confidence that his colleagues will approve ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal before they adjourn the regular session on June 5.
“It can be done. The key is for the House to act on the franchise [bill] as soon as possible,” Drilon said.
Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said the Senate public services committee would open hearings next week to start the discussion of the chamber’s own version of the TV network’s franchise.
“Hopefully, we can pass the measure the week after. We will work expeditiously to pass the measure up to ratification before the break,” Zubiri said in a Viber message.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, however, said the House move was just a “band-aid solution” that would put the broadcast giant on a “leash.”
He questioned the bill’s five-month effectivity instead of the usual 25 years.
‘Leash on its neck’“(ABS-CBN) will be like a dog with a leash on its neck. If they pull it hard, the company will not be able to bark, but just bellow in pain,” Pangilinan said.
“Until the franchise has not been granted, this will still be an attack on media and press freedom, and an assault to our democracy,” he added.
But in a statement, the network welcomed the bill and thanked leaders of the House “for recognizing the role we play in providing for the needs of the people in terms of access to news, information, entertainment, and public service at this crucial time.”
Sought for comment, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the approval of the provisional franchise for ABS-CBN was the prerogative of the House.
The President respects it, he added.
Roque said last week that the President was taking a “neutral” stand on the franchise renewal issue and the administration-dominated House could vote on it either way.
Committee of the whole
The House on Wednesday converted itself into a committee of the whole to allow the entire body to discuss the bill, instead of limiting discussions to the House legislative franchises panel before plenary debates.
The bill will be put to a vote on third reading in compliance with the chamber’s three-day notice rule.
Cayetano, who previously aired personal objections to ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal due to what he perceived to be its unfavorable coverage of him, sponsored the bill himself.
The Taguig lawmaker called out both supporters and critics of ABS-CBN, including the “media establishment,” which he said had been laying the blame for the network’s shutdown at his door.
He criticized Solicitor General Jose Calida, whose last-minute lobby was seen as the trigger for the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to order the network to close down on May 5.
The NTC, in a March 10 hearing, assured members of the House franchise panel that it would issue a provisional authority to ABS-CBN to continue operating after its license expired, as it had done in the past.
But the agency broke its promise on May 5 when it issued an order directing ABS-CBN to stop its broadcast operations covered by the franchise. The network’s TV and radio stations went off the air around 8 p.m. that day.
Day of reckoning
The Speaker last week pledged that there would be a “reckoning” with the NTC and Calida for their actions.
In his speech, Cayetano said “we must not allow the betrayal of the NTC and the unconstitutional meddling of the Solicitor General in this exclusive power of Congress to go unchallenged.”
“Their actions are not only an affront to the institution, it also delays the discussion and passage of crucial legislation that our people sorely need,” he said.
Addressing ABS-CBN management and employees, the Speaker acknowledged their role in “nation building.”
“I echo the words of the President when he tells you to just do your job. Call out injustice and corruption whenever you see it … This is your mandate—to speak truth freely and fearlessly to power. But beware that you do not become the power that you hope to check,” he said.
Cayetano also reacted strongly to criticisms he received from some ABS-CBN reporters, including those who pointed out that in February, he rhetorically pledged to turn on the network’s transmitter himself if NTC chose to shut it down.
“Some of your reporters repeatedly say, didn’t you yourself say you would turn on the transmitter if the station was forced to close down? My answer to that is: Didn’t you voluntarily shut down?”
The House leader promised a fair, impartial and thorough hearing of the issues for or against ABS-CBN.
“There will be no rush to judgment. Both the praise for and the charges against the network will be heard and will be put on public record,” he said.
“Whatever the outcome of these hearings will be, there will be reforms. There must be, not just a new, but a better normal. Not only for ABS-CBN, but for the entire media industry,” Cayetano said.
In its statement, ABS-CBN said it looked forward “to participating in the process of our franchise renewal and stand ready to respond to the issues that have been raised against the network, its owners, management and employees.”
“We remain open to opinions and constructive suggestions on how to improve the organization and better serve the Filipino people,” it added.
—WITH REPORTS FROM MARLON RAMOS, LEILA B. SALAVERRIA AND MIGUEL R. CAMUS
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