By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
The Senate committee on public services is set to start its discussion on the franchise renewal application of broadcast network ABS-CBN amid the refusal of the House of Representatives to tackle the matter.
Sen. Grace Poe, committee chair, announced this Monday as she disclosed changing her mind about her proposal for the Upper Chamber, with its oversight function, to look into the media giant’s compliance with its franchise following allegations of violations from the government.
The senator, however, maintained that the Senate will not step on the Lower Chamber’s authority over the legislative franchises granted to public utilities and broadcast companies.
“Ang franchise kasi ay isang local bill, ito ay dapat nagmumula sa Mababang Kapulungan. Pero alam naman natin na pagdating sa mga bagay lalong-lalo na kung ito’y kailangan nang maipasa, katulad ng budget, katulad ng buwis o taxes, simultaenous naman ang pagdinig sa House at sa Senado. Kahit na wala pang nata-transmit na bill ang [Kamara], naghi-hearing na tayo dito,” Poe said in a briefing at the Senate.
(A franchise is a local bill, this should emanate from the Lower Chamber. But we all know that when it comes to matters that are urgent, like the budget, or tax bills, the House and Senate can simultaneously conduct hearings. Even if the House of Representatives has yet to transmit the bill, we can conduct hearings here.)
“Sinabi ko naman sa kanila na hindi naman ito paglabag ng kapangyarihan sapagkat nangyari na ito ilang beses (I told them that this will not encroach on their powers because this has happened several times),” she pointed out, citing informal talks with some congressmen on the issue.
She said the Senate public services panel will still wait for the franchise bill coming from their counterpart before releasing its report on the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN.
In pursuing the legislative inquiry, Poe reiterated that the Senate is well within its authority to investigate the alleged franchise violations of ABS-CBN, as raised by Solicitor General Jose Calida in the quo warranto petition he filed last week.
“We should be able to exercise our mandate, otherwise we are not fulfilling our responsibility,” she said.
She also stressed the urgency to discuss the matter since the network’s 25-year franchise is expiring on March 30. The bills seeking to extend the franchise of ABS-CBN have been languishing in the Lower Chamber since the 17th Congress.
“I think it’s reasonable for us to be worried at this point,” Poe said, noting that Congress is set to go on recess on March 12.
While stressing that the Senate does not intend to put pressure on the House, Poe said she hopes that congressmen will finally act on the franchise bills.
The hearing on ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal was scheduled on Feb. 27, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri confirmed to reporters Monday afternoon.
On Monday, Poe reiterated her appeal to lawmakers, particularly those from the Lower Chamber, to make sure that ABS-CBN would be allowed to operate even after their legislative franchise has expired.
She said the House, as the chamber in charge of franchise bills, should ask the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to grant the ABS-CBN the provisional authority to continue doing business pending Congress action on their franchise renewal.
The NTC, in turn, should be able to justify should it decide to deny to grant such a permit to the broadcast network, she said.
“This has been done many times with the CBCP (Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines; I believe with Smart, Globe, if I’m not mistaken, lahat naman sila nag-lapse na ‘yong kanilang franchise habang may naka-file pang bill sa Kongreso (all of their franchises lapsed while there were still bills filed in Congress).
“Kaya in-extend ng NTC (That’s why NTC extended their operations), or NTC was silent about it, hindi naman sila pinatigil ng operation (their operations were not halted),” Poe said.
“If this will not be granted in this case, what [will] the reasons will be, why grant it to other franchises? When their franchises haven’t been approved, they were given a provisional permit to operate, why [not] do the same in this case?” she followed.
She said she is optimistic that the NTC, under the executive branch, will be fair and give ABS-CBN the same opportunity it gave to others.
Poe said abruptly halting the operations of ABS-CBN due to the House’s inaction would be unfair for the broadcast company and its 11,000 workers who are in danger of being displaced.
“Kasi doon sa prangkisa nada-draft namin, malinaw doon na may multa o mayroon suspension, pero para sabihin na pugutan na ng operasyon ay napakalubha naman no’n (In the franchises that we are drafting, it clearly indicated that there are fines, or a suspension penalty, but to cut the operations would be too severe),” she said.
She also recalled the Congress swiftly approving last year the franchise of Dito Telecommunity, formerly Mislatel, despite issues on the validity of its 1998 franchise, also due to alleged violations.
“‘Di ba lahat tayo gusto natin mabilis ang internet natin, maganda ang service natin, eh dalawa lang ang nagpo-provide ng ating telecommunication service. So ang administrasyon na ‘to sinabi na kailangan ng third telco player, or more telco players,” Poe said.
(Don’t we all want our internet to be fast, our service to be good, but there are only two telecommunication providers. So this administration said, we need a third telco player, or more telco players.)
“So pinasok dito ‘yong Mislatel, pero yong Mislatel na ‘yan, binili nila ang prangkisa nila sa isang existing franchise. Pero noong inimbestigahan namin ‘yong existing franchise, maraming rin silang violations.”
(So the Mislatel application was filed, but Mislatel bought an existing franchise. But when we investigated that existing franchise, we found that they too had many violations.)
She added, “But because of the urgency of the situation, the House, pinayagan nila na ma-transmit dito (they allowed the transmittal). In spite of the violations, nakarating pa rin dito ‘yong prangkisa na ‘yon (the franchise still reached the Senate).
“Cancelling a franchise without sufficient hearings is not fair. I think we should continue with the hearings to be able to determine if there was indeed a violation that it merits a cancellation.”