By Genalyn Kabiling
Malacañang yesterday thanked ABS-CBN media network for its service to the Filipino nation, especially in this time of COVID-19 pandemic.
“We thank the network for its services to the Filipino nation and people especially in this time of COVID-19. But in the absence of a legislative franchise, as we have earlier said,
ABS-CBN’s continued operation is entirely with the NTC’s decision,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Tuesday shortly after the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) ordered a stop to its broadcast operations.
Roque said the network is “free to exhaust all legal remedies available” but its operation is entirely with the NTC order.
The NTC issued a cease-and-desist order (CDO) against the network after its 25-year legislative franchise expired last May 4. The station shut down its broadcast operations Tuesday night in compliance with the NTC order.
Roque said the Palace would also leave it to Congress to decide on the bills seeking the franchise renewal of the network. He mentioned that President Duterte had earlier accepted the apology of the network and “left its fate to both houses of Congress.”
“Let the public be informed that broadcast franchises are within the authority of Congress. It has discretion on what to do with the legislative franchise of ABS-CBN and other broadcasting companies similarly situated,” he added.
Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go on Wednesday called on the House of Representatives to act on the measures that seek to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise.
“Now that (the regular) session has already resumed, I am urging the House of Representatives to act on this matter with due haste,” he said.
“Upon reaching the Senate and once we have had a chance to conduct our own hearings on the matter, that is when I will decide and vote according to my conscience and the interest of the Filipino people,” Go added.
Solons slam NTC decision
Congressmen crossed partylines as they assailed the NTC decision to stop the ABS-CBN network from operating starting Tuesday.
House members threw the blame at the NTC, notwithstanding the fact that delayed action on the part of the Lower House has been pointed to as the main reason for the expiration of the franchise of the network, considered among the broadcast leaders in the country.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said recommendation for a “reasonable extension of its legislative franchise prior to its extension” is the only remedy for ABS-CBN’s dilemma. “The solution proffered by the House leadership on the grant of a provisional authority to the network giant by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) is contrary to law and jurisprudence, as I have previously explained.”
Section 16 of RA 7925 clearly provides, “No person shall commence or conduct the business of being a public telecommunications entity without first obtaining a franchise,” explained Lagman.
Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, Reps. Joey Sarte Salceda (PDP-Laban, Albay); France Castro (ACT Teachers Partylist), and Alfredo Garbin (Ako Bicol Party-list) decried the NTC decision as they cited alleged violations of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press and Congress authority over legislative franchises by the regulatory agency.
Lawyer Larry Gadon, however, welcomed the NTC decision for observing the “rule of law.”
“The rule of law was upheld by NTC. It is right for everybody to follow what the law says, otherwise, the agency will be giving undue advantages to a private entity which is violative of the anti-graft law,” said Gadon who had threatened to file criminal charges against NTC and House officials if an extension was granted by the telecommunications regulator.
The NTC order is a “blow to its independence as a regulatory body,” said Zarate.
He claimed that the NTC had apparently “succumbed to the threats of Solicitor General Jose Calida” who, like Gadon, vowed to go after NTC officials with graft charges if ABS CBN is allowed to continue operating despite the expiration of its congressional franchise.
Salceda said NTC should have allowed Congress to decide on ABS CBN’s fate.
“My position on the matter has always been clear: It is the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress to determine whether a broadcast network should be granted the privilege to operate, and whether that privilege should remain,” he stressed.
Salceda stated: “The NTC action should serve as a warming to Congress that if we do not do our job, the Executive will do it for us, step into any existential void, fill in any power gap guided only by its own narrow worldview of what constitutes national interest.”
Garbin noted that the NTC made a “complete turnaround” of its previous assurance to the Lower House that it will issue a provisional authority for ABS-CBN to continue operating while Congress is still working on its franchise extension.
“Finally, I find the Order inappropriate and insensitive to the plight of the Filipino people in its fight against the COVID pandemic. ABS-CBN plays a
huge role in our fight against the virus, not only in terms of information dissemination, but also in terms of civil society assistance to the government efforts and in securing employment to the thousands of its employees,” said Garbin.
For her part, Castro decried the NTC move, saying the telecoms body made its decision notwithstanding the legal and historical grounds that allows the grant of a provisional authority.
“This a major attack against press freedom during a time where the people are demanding for transparency and right to information from the government and its policies,” said Castro.
Lagman urged the House leadership to prioritize the “enactment of the long-pending franchise renewal” while Congress is still in session.
“The cessation of ABS-CBN’s operations sounds the death knell of the freedom of the press even as thousands of its employees and indirect workers and enterprises dependent on the broadcasting network are doomed to lose their livelihoods,” he said.
SolGen backs NTC
Despite the congressmen’s opposition, Calida defended the NTC decision.
“Why blame NTC when they are only following the law,” Calida said in a statement.
“Without a valid and subsisting franchise from Congress, the NTC cannot allow any broadcasting entity from operating in the country,” he added.
After ABS-CBN’s legislative franchise expired on May 4, the NTC issued on Tuesday, May 5, the CDO following warnings made by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) against issuing provisional authorities (PAs) to allow the media giant to operate while the renewal of its legislative franchise remains pending.
“The OSG has the duty to advise the NTC on what is legal or not. We will be abdicating our duty to the NTC if we don’t advise them of the legal consequences of their actions,” said Calida. The OSG is the legal counsel of the NTC.
The Solicitor General said the Constitution provides that a broadcasting company can only operate in the country if it has a legislative franchise.
“The Constitution requires a prior franchise from Congress before a broadcasting entity can operate in this country. In the absence of a renewal, the franchise expires by operation of
law. The franchise ceases to exist and the entity can no longer continue its operations as a public utility,” he explained.
Calida said the Supreme Court (SC) already declared this in its past rulings, particularly, the 2003 decision on the case of Associated Communications & Wireless Service-United Broadcasting Networks vs. NTC.
Citing the case, Calida said the SC ruled that “the issuance by the NTC of both a recall order and a cease and desist order against a broadcasting entity when it failed to renew its franchise was valid and compliant to administrative due process.”
“The exercise by the NTC of its regulatory power is in accordance with the principle of the rule of law. Nobody is sacred. Even a powerful and influential corporation must follow the law,” Calida said.
Welfare of ABS-CBN workers
Meanwhile, Labor Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III on Wednesday said employees of ABS-CBN shall continue to be employed despite the CDO issued by the NTC.
“The issuance of the cease-anddesist order does not have immediate impact on the employment of its employees,” he said.
“Employees shall continue to be employed,” added Bello.
He said the employees shall remain entitled also to all labor standards, saying the CDO does not automatically extinguish the corporate existence of any company.
Bello added that legal remedies are also available.
He expressed hope that the issue will be resolved based on applicable laws, rules, and regulations.
Bello said what is paramount is the protection of the rights and the promotion of the welfare of all workers, particularly those of ABS-CBN.
In the event that ABS-CBN decides to lay-off some of its workers, Bello said it must go through the established standards of termination. (With reports from Ben R. Rosario, Mario B. Casayuran, Jeffrey G. Damicog, Leslie Ann G. Aquino)