MANILA -- Eight bills seeking an extension of ABS-CBN Corp's franchise must be brought to the House of Representatives plenary "without further delay," an opposition lawmaker on Monday urged a committee tasked to handle the measures.
The franchise of Lopez-owned ABS-CBN, which will expire at the end of March, is "inextricably linked" to press freedom, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said in the resolution. Lawmakers have 24 regular session days from Jan. 20 to act on the matter, it said.
Lagman issued the appeal to the Committee on Legislative Franchises in the wake of repeated statements from President Rodrigo Duterte that ABS-CBN's franchise should not be renewed, at one point urging its owners to just sell the network.
"Any inordinate delay or arbitrary denial of a franchise renewal emasculates freedom of the press," Lagman said.
The chairperson of the committee, Palawan Rep. Franz Alvarez, said last week that the "advice" from Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano was to ensure a "fair and impartial" review of the proposed franchise extension.
"But we should all be reminded that under the law, the grant of a franchise is not a right, but a privilege," Alvarez said. "This is why we have to hear all sides, and find out if ABS-CBN violated the provisions of its franchise."
Lagman signed the resolution, adding the following are expected to sign as soon as they return from their holiday break: Representatives Micaela Violago of Nueva Ecija, Joy Myra Tambunting of Parañaque, Johnny Pimentel of Surigao del Sur, Doy Leachon of Oriental Mindoro, Jocelyn Limkaichong of Negros Oriental, Emmanuel Billones of Capiz, Christopher “Kit” Belmonte of Quezon City, France Castro of ACT-Teachers, Carlos Zarate of Bayan Muna, and Eufemia Cullamat also of Bayan Muna.
Lagman earlier said that a "deliberate and arbitrary" denial of the franchise extension for another 25 years could endanger the livelihood of ABS-CBN's 10,955 employees.
The Albay lawmaker also said the President's threats against the network were "ominously reminiscent of the unceremonious closure" of media companies during the Marcos years, which included ABS-CBN.
The late Eugenio "Geny" Lopez Jr rebuilt ABS-CBN in 1986, following the ouster of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the restoration of democracy. It is now the Philippines' largest media and entertainment network.
The Lagman resolution cited a Supreme Court ruling, which deemed as "unconstitutional prior restraint on the exercise of freedom of speech and of the press" past threats by the late Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez against the airing of the so-called "Garci Tapes."
The "Garci Tapes" are purported wiretapped recordings of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and ex-elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano on alleged plans to rig the 2004 elections in her favor. Arroyo has denied wrongdoing.
Also under the resolution, Lagman said a franchise is required for "reasonable regulation" and not to curtail freedom of the press. It is a right, not a privilege, once the conditions for its grant are "substantially complied with."
"The President must uphold the freedom of the press and respect the independence of the Congress, particularly the House of Representatives where franchise bills originate, in granting and extending franchises," according to the resolution.
"Likewise, the leadership and membership of the House of Representatives, particularly the Committee on Legislative Franchises, must act independently in exercising exclusive congressional jurisdiction on the grant of franchises, and must not be cowed by the President’s wanton rantings," it said.
Castro, the ACT Teachers party-list representative, accused the President of using his office to get back at ABS-CBN, like it did to media organizations that report on his war on drugs, such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
"Kung may isyu talaga ang Pangulo laban sa ABS-CBN, idaan niya ito dapat sa proseso at huwag gamitin ang franchise nito upang brasuhin at i-bully ang media. Sana tumayo sa sariling paa ang Kongreso," Castro said.
(If the President has an issue with ABS-CBN, he should use the right processes and not use the franchise to intimidate and bully the media. We hope Congress will be independent.)
Alvarez also said last week that the franchise renewal should not be treated as a press freedom issue.
"The issue involves the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN. There is no attempt to muzzle or control the media here so do not try to make this a press freedom issue when it is not," he said.
news.abs-cbn.com is the official news website of ABS-CBN Corp.
-- report from RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News