House walks back on ABS-CBN provisional franchise
MANILA, Philippines — The House of Representatives on Monday walked back its penultimate approval of a bill giving ABS-CBN a five-month provisional franchise to allow further debates in response to grumblings about its “railroading” last week.
On a motion by Deputy Majority Leader Wilter Palma, the 302-member chamber reopened floor deliberations on House Bill No. 6732 on second reading “due to the request of members who wish to make interpellations and amendments.”
The decision cast doubt on whether the House would still give the country’s largest broadcast network a reprieve while the body resolves the larger question of granting a fresh 25-year franchise to ABS-CBN following its shutdown on May 5.
“The main reason is transparency, due process and fairness,” according to the bill’s sponsor, Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte Jr., who said the House leadership was prepared to hear all proposed amendments to the measure.
The bill, authored by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and seven other House leaders, would allow ABS-CBN to go back on the air until Oct. 31 unless sooner revoked or canceled.
NTC closure order
This had been viewed as the legal fix to the closure order slapped by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) on ABS-CBN a day after its franchise expired on May 4, prompting the network to shutter its radio and television stations.
The House breezed through the approval of the measure at the committee level, as well as on first and second reading on Wednesday, eliciting objections from legal experts who argued that no bill should be passed on first and second reading on the same day.
The bill would have been passed on third reading following a nominal vote after the three-day notice period.
Even if the House approved the bill, ABS-CN could still not get a new franchise because the measure would still have to be approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Duterte, who had previously assailed the network for not airing his campaign ads in 2016.
During Monday’s debate, Villafuerte tussled with Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman on the constitutionality of the chamber’s decision to approve the provisional license.
Lagman argued that the House’s reversion to second reading proved his point that the chamber violated the 1987 Constitution in approving the bill on first and second reading on the same day, as bills should be passed on first to third reading on three separate days.
But Villafuerte said what the Charter required in passing bills was “three readings on separate days, not three separate days.”
He also cited a number of precedents in which Congress passed joint resolutions on first and second reading on the same day. But that drew another rebuttal from Lagman, who noted none of those measures were bills.
Free ads for government
Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez raised a possible violation of the equal protection clause in a section of House Bill No. 6732 that would compel ABS-CBN to devote 10 percent of its airtime to free government ads, especially during public emergencies.
Rodriguez noted that the 10 percent threshold was absent in previous franchises granted by Congress.
Cayetano pointed out that the provision was present in the franchise of “similarly situated” networks, among them ABS-CBN’s biggest competitors, GMA and TV 5.
Cavite Rep. Abraham Tolentino and ACT-CIS Rep. Eric Yap each wondered why there was a need to discuss a provisional license when the House could directly tackle the 11 pending bills renewing the network’s 25-year franchise.
Yap and Tolentino, along with Deputy Speaker Paolo Duterte, the son of the President, are coauthors of a House resolution that seeks a congressional inquiry on “probable violations” of its expired franchise, particularly its pay-per-view business and alleged foreign ownership through Philippine depository receipts.
Petitioning high court anew
Also on Monday, ABS-CBN petitioned the Supreme Court again to at least temporarily suspend the NTC order to cease its television and radio operations on May 5 due to the nonrenewal of its franchise.
The network told the tribunal that even if the House of Representatives passed a bill allowing it to operate until Oct. 31, the provisional authority could take weeks or months to be enforced due to bureaucratic regulations.
It said it was losing P30 million to P35 million in advertising revenue daily, and warned that “if this severe financial hemorrhage is not stopped, ABS-CBN may be constrained to eventually let go of workers, reduce salaries and benefits, and substantially cut down on costs and expenses.”
ABS-CBN saw volatile trading on the stock market on Monday, following an eight-day suspension. After falling as much as 14 percent at the opening, it recovered and ended the session down 7.2 percent to P16.24 per share.
In previous months, the media giant touched a 52-week low of P14.80 due to uncertainty over its franchise renewal.
ABS-CBN has lost significant market value since the start of the Duterte administration due to its constant threats to shut down the network.
It was trading as much as P59.50 per share in the quarter before Duterte assumed power in 2016.