MANILA (UPDATE) - With Congress already enjoining the National Telecommunications Commission to grant ABS-CBN Corp a provisional authority to operate once its broadcast franchise expires May 4, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Monday asked the Office of the Solicitor General what power it has to defy the government body authorized to issue franchises.
"The grant of a franchise is a sovereign power granted in Congress. Congress already wrote to the NTC. What power does the Solicitor General have to contradict the body that acts as the repository of the sovereign power?" Drilon, a former Justice Secretary, said.
"The OSG cannot say that an act of the legislative or an agency of the executive branch is illegal. That is for the Courts to decide," he said.
Solicitor General Jose Calida on Sunday warned the NTC against issuing provisional authorities to ABS-CBN Corp and its affiliate, ABS-CBN Convergence, Inc., in the absence of a franchise from Congress.
Contradicting the position of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, Calida insisted that a franchise must be secured first from Congress before the NTC can issue a Certificate of Public Convenience from the NTC.
"That issue has been settled during our hearings. I expect the NTC to allow ABS-CBN to continue to operate until Congress makes a final decision," Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto told ABS-CBN News in a text message.
Aside from the House of Representatives, the Senate also authorized the NTC to give ABS-CBN a provisional authority.
Calida threatened NTC commissioners they may face prosecution under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act if they issue the provisional authority to ABS-CBN and Convergence.
"The OSG should be reminded of its mandate under the law. Under the Revised Administrative Code, the OSG shall act as lawyer of government agencies including the NTC," said Drilon.
"There is a conflict of interest there when the lawyer threatens to sue its client," he added, noting that it is the NTC and not the OSG that is granted regulatory functions under the law.
Should there be conflicting positions between the NTC and OSG, Drilon said it is up to the Justice Secretary to settle the issue.
"There is nothing in the law which allows the OSG to overturn an opinion by the Secretary of Justice," he said.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros finds it "very strange" for Calida to "contradict" the DOJ and threaten NTC.
"It is very strange to me why the OSG insists on contradicting the uniform views of not only both houses of Congress, but also the Department of Justice itself - to which the OSG is attached," she said.
Drilon said it is not the first time for the NTC to issue a temporary and conditional permit to operate. In fact, one case in the past has been recognized in a 2003 case that Calida himself cited, he added.
"The Court never barred the NTC from issuing temporary permits to operate. It merely said that the broadcaster cannot completely do away with the requirement to apply for a franchise, as provided under the law," Drilon explained.
Congress is yet to tackle several bills seeking for a fresh 25-year franchise for ABS-CBN.
Guevarra had told a Senate panel that ABS-CBN should not be punished for Congress' inaction, noting that the media giant's franchise renewal bid has been pending in the House Legislative Franchises Committee since 2014.
The NTC earlier said all live permits to operate and maintain broadcast and pay TV facilities that would expire during the Luzon quarantine would be automatically renewed. The licenses will be valid for 60 days from the end of the quarantine period.
"Even more questionable is why the government's chief counsel insists on shutting down a broadcast network in the middle of a health emergency and depriving the public of a critical means to receive timely and accurate information," Hontiveros said.
"At this point in time, when there is a need for information... If we will shut down a major network, that is highly irregular," Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri told reporters in an online press conference.
"Dapat tuloy-tuloy lang ang major networks sa pagbibigay nila ng impormasyon, (Major networks should be allowed to continuously provide information) unless they violated a provision in their franchise," he said.
Hontiveros said instead of "misplaced priorities," the Office of the Solicitor General "should just focus its energies on supporting government efforts amid the pandemic."
Calida had also questioned the validity of the current franchise of ABS-CBN before the Supreme Court.
ABS-CBN, which reaches millions of Filipinos through its television, radio and online platforms, said it has not violated the law in its 65-year service.
News.abs-cbn.com is the news website of ABS-CBN.
- with a report from Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News