Solicitor General Jose Calida yesterday warned the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) that it will be charged with graft should it issue a provisional license to ABS-CBN Corporation, saying that the NTC has no power to do so.
This comes after the NTC promised in early March to give ABS-CBN provisional authority to operate while the media company waits for the House of Representatives to grant it a fresh 25-year franchise. ABS-CBN’s franchise expires today.
“Although this legislative power may be delegated to administrative agencies through a law, at present, there is no such law giving the NTC or any other agency the power to grant franchises to broadcasting entities,” Solicitor General Calida said in his statement on the eve of the network’s franchise expiry, which was also World Press Freedom Day.
“No less than the Constitution requires a prior franchise from Congress. Hence, when there is no 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,” Calida added.
He also warned NTC’s commissioners that if they granted ABS-CBN a provisional permit, they “risk subjecting themselves to prosecution under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.”
Calida filed a petition in February to declare ABS-CBN’s franchise void, alleging that the embattled network was a foreign-owned entity, because the company had issued Philippine Depositary Receipts or PDRs. The network has maintained that it was still a Filipino owned corporation because PDRs are financial instruments used by media companies to allow foreign investments. The network said it did not violate the constitutional rule that media entities should be 100% Filipino-owned.
In February, the Department of Justice said that ABS-CBN Corporation can still operate under “equity considerations” should the House of Representatives disapprove its license. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that such considerations are observed in the interest of fairness, and is applied in situations where there’s an apparent gap in the constitution.
Guevarra said that the country has no laws that fit the media company’s current predicament, whose lapsed franchise renewal remains neither approved or rejected. “There’s no mention in our existing laws of the rights of a franchisee whose franchise lapses while its renewal remains pending,” the justice secretary said.
The franchise renewal has been the subject of much controversy, ever since President Rodrigo Duterte publicly voiced his dislike for the station, calling it a thief after it allegedly refused to run his 2016 campaign ads.
ABS-CBN has insisted that Duterte’s ads were aired nationally, though a fraction of local spots were not because the president had placed them late. Despite this, ABS-CBN apologized for the unaired campaign ads, and Duterte has accepted the network’s apology.
The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) yesterday condemned Calida’s warning to NTC, berating the solicitor general for its move amid the pandemic.
“Calida threatened ABS-CBN and the NTC amidst a vicious pandemic when it is quite obvious that the media could be partners in these difficult times, as they have done these past eight weeks,” the group said.
“It would do no good to the Filipino people if the country’s biggest media corporation, one that is relied upon by a great number of the people during this pandemic for news, entertainment and relief delivery, if it ceases operations tomorrow…Is the government so blinded by its chief executive’s hatred of an entity that it dares to flaunt our nation’s collective sense of fair play, due process, and common good when the entire country grapples with a problem infinitely more pressing and dangerous? Shame!” NUJP said.
In mid-march, NTC said that all permits to broadcast expiring during the enhanced community quarantine will be automatically renewed and will be valid for 60 days beginning from the end of the lockdown. Duterte, however, has extended the lockdown in Luzon and other high-risk areas until May 15, and it’s unclear if the order will likewise be extended.