Think tank: Granting ex-ABS-CBN frequencies to others 'almost midnight deal'
MANILA (UPDATE) - The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) on Wednesday said it is "concerned" about the granting of frequencies last held by ABS-CBN to other companies, which, according to a think tank, appears to be an "almost midnight deal."
While the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) gave a legal and "procedural explanation" for the move, it was done days before the election period, Infrawatch PH convenor Terry Ridon said.
Under subsection 6.4 of Republic Act No. 9006 or the Fair Elections Act, "No franchise or permit to operate a radio or television station shall be granted or issued, suspended or cancelled during the election period."
The NTC orders assigning frequencies used by ABS-CBN were dated Jan. 5 and 6, a few days before this year's election period opened on Jan. 9.
"Kaya almost midnight deal. Kasi yan yung (that is the) midnight deal," Ridon told ABS-CBN News in an email.
"They can try to legally justify it all they want, but the public will surely have none of it, especially with one of the Villars running now for public office," he added.
The NTC on Tuesday confirmed that Advanced Media Broadcasting System Inc., a company owned by business tycoon and former Sen. Manny Villar, has taken over Channels 2 and 16.
Pastor Apollo Quiboloy's Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), meanwhile, was able to get Channel 43, which used to be assigned to Amcara Broadcasting Corp. but ABS-CBN used for the latter's TVPlus channels under a blocktime agreement.
The NTC also granted Aliw Broadcasting Corporation a provisional authority to use Channel 23.
ABS-CBN was denied in July 2020 a new franchise by a House of Representatives panel despite being cleared by regulatory agencies. As a result, it shut down its free TV and radio operations and retrenched thousands of its employees in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Rodrigo Duterte said many times in public speeches that he would see to it that ABS-CBN, which he believes offended him through the non-airing of some of his pre-paid political ads as well as the airing of a critical ad in the 2016 presidential campaign, halts operations.
A member of the Villar family, Mark, was head of the Department of Public Works and Highways before resigning last year to run for a Senate seat in this year's elections.
Her sister, Las Piñas Rep. Camille Villar, voted in 2020 against granting ABS-CBN a new franchise.
Quiboloy, meanwhile, is Duterte's spiritual adviser.
"Parceling these frequencies leaves a bad taste in the mouth given that the Duterte administration is already in its final months, and it sure looks like an almost midnight deal with these media entities," Ridon said in a statement.
The NUJP said the developments have "dire implications on the people's right to relevant information" as the pandemic lingered.
"These networks are perceived to be friendly to government and to one presidential aspirant. We are concerned at the concentration of power in a corporate media landscape already dominated by conglomerates and political clans," the group said in a statement.
The NUJP noted a supposed lack of transparency on how the firms were able to get the frequencies. The Department of Justice approved the move after its opinion was sought.
A justice undersecretary, Emmeline Aglipay, is the wife of former DPWH Sec. Mark Villar.
"As regulatory processes can be used against perceived critics, they can also be used to favor allies like the powerful Villar family, which has a member in the legislative branch and, until last year, one in the president's Cabinet," according to the NUJP.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra had said the move was not premeditated.
Guevarra emphasized that the discussion was all about legal issues of the NTC to allocate the frequencies.
"There was no reference to or mention whatsoever of any private parties or private interests, nor was the opinion rendered within a specific factual context,” he said.
Noting the explanation made by the NTC in awarding the frequencies, Ridon said that "what is legally and procedurally sound is not necessarily correct nor acceptable to the public."
He expressed worries that "investor confidence will be dampened with this development", saying "it diminishes the investment objectives of the amendments to the Public Service Act" as the NTC decision "shows serious political risk on future investments in the Philippines."
"The way forward now is for the media entities to step back from the award and wait for a new government to provide fresh mandates on the ABS-CBN question," said Ridon.
"This is most pressing on AMBS, which is owned by the Villar family, as they have a family member running for the Senate and who also served in the Duterte cabinet as public works chief," he added.
Ridon said "it might be better" for the Villars to "just waive the award until the next administration."
"The public would like to see whether the Villars will recuse themselves from this award, as this is a question that will always be raised to Mark Villar during the senatorial campaign," he said.
The NTC said in a press statement Tuesday that AMBS was granted the provisional authority "after the determination of its legal, technical and financial qualification."
It also sought policy guidance from the Department of Information and Communications Technology, a legal opinion from the DOJ, and the concurrence of the Office of Executive Secretary at the Office of the President, it said.
The NUJP said that while new networks could mean new jobs, "we hope that the assignment of its former frequencies will not be another hindrance to getting ABS-CBN back on air and laid-off colleagues back at their jobs."
"We hope as well that the entry of new TV networks will mean more sources of information and reliable news instead of content catered to serve its owners' political and business interests," it added.
The Villar group has yet to respond to requests for comment, while Aliw Broadcasting Corp. has no statement on the developments.
news.abs-cbn.com is the official news website of ABS-CBN Corp.