Senators eye passing ABS-CBN's provisional license before session adjourns in June

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 13 2020 06:03 PM | Updated as of May 13 2020 08:27 PM

MANILA (UPDATE 3) - The Senate will "work expeditiously" to pass ABS-CBN's provisional franchise before Congress adjourns in the first week of June, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said Wednesday, as the House of Representatives swiftly acted on a measure that would allow the Philippines' largest media network to operate until October 2020.

The Senate will begin committee deliberations for a counterpart measure early next week and vote on ABS-CBN's temporary license "by Wednesday afternoon," Zubiri told reporters in a text message.

"Hopefully we can pass the measure the week after. We will work expeditiously to pass the measure up to ratification before the June 3 break," he said.

"This [committee on the whole hearing] does away with deliberations in the committee and usually tends to speed up deliberations. Hopefully, this will be the case here," Sen. Sonny Angara said in a separate statement.            

At least 13 senators earlier filed a bill granting ABS-CBN provisional franchise until June 2022.

Under the law, franchise bills must emanate from the House of Representatives before the Senate can tackle it in plenary.

Under Senate rules, a bill approved on committee level can only be taken to the plenary after 3 days to give lawmakers enough time to study the measure, unless the President certifies it as urgent.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said it is possible for the ABS-CBN provisional franchise bill to hurdle Congress before the sine die adjournment next month.

"Yes, it can be done. The key is for the House of Representatives to act on the franchise as [fast as] possible," Drilon said when sought for comment.

"The hearing can be conducted any time next week and hopefully the committee report can be sponsored by Wednesday during session and 2nd reading could be done by the 25th of May," Zubiri told reporters in a later statement.

"We will push for 3rd reading on June 1 and hopefully ratified by both houses before June 3," he said.

Senators Christopher "Bong" Go and Manny Pacquiao thanked the House for finally tackling the ABS-CBN franchise bill, which has been stalled in the House Committee on Legislative Franchises for half a decade.

"Pinasasalamatan natin ang Mababang Kapulungan sapagkat sa bandang huli ay pinagbigyan din nila ang ating kahilingan na mabigyan kahit pansamantalang prangkisa lang ang naturang broadcast network," Pacquiao said in a statement.

(We thank the House because in the end, they heeded our request to give temporary franchise to the broadcast network.)

"I hope that this franchise issue is finally put to rest. We should stop fighting over this issue and allow Congress to do its mandate," he said.

"Ang mahalaga ay maaksyunan na. Isaalang-alang natin ang mga apektadong mga tao at sundin natin ang tama at legal na proseso," Go said in a separate statement.

(What's important is that action was taken. Let us consider people who are affected and follow the correct and legal process.)

Once approved in the House, the measure will be brought to the Senate, and Go said "...when that time comes, I will decide based on my conscience and my conscience is with the interest of the Filipino people." 

Senate Committee on Public Services chair Grace Poe said she was certain that "a lot" of people are "relieved" with the House action on ABS-CBN's franchise.

"I'm sure a lot of people are relieved, and I am happy for the employees of ABS-CBN," Poe told ANC.

Despite making a commitment to Congress that it would allow the media giant to continually operate while its renewal bid is still pending in the legislature, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) ordered ABS-CBN off the air a day after the lapse of its franchise, endangering the job security of the company's 11,000 workers.

"This is not strictly about freedom of the press, but certainly, some are alarmed by it and rightly so," Poe said.

"If you are in a company and somebody is fired without due process, other employees will be alarmed as well," she said.

Poe earlier inhibited from the network's franchise proceedings in the Senate to avoid impressions of bias as her mother, actress Susan Roces, is in the cast of ABS-CBN's top-rating primetime show "Ang Probinsyano."

Committee Vice Chair Sherwin Gatchalian will oversee proceedings.

Gatchalian has yet to reply to queries about the schedule of deliberations next week.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III had cautioned senators on handling the bill, saying several complaints may arise from how the House passed ABS-CBN's provisional franchise bill via a "fastbreak."

"We should be cautious in such matters that they (House) 'fastbroke' it in a day, without amendments, without interpellations," Sotto told his colleagues in plenary.

"I'm afraid that when Monday comes the members of the House of Representatives who are not present today will question it... Somebody might bring it up to the courts."

Like a dog in chains

For opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan, the proposed 5-month temporary franchise still leaves the Philippines' largest media network "like a dog in chains." 

"Bakit 5 buwan lang at hindi 25 years tulad ng lahat ng iba pang nabigyan ng mga prangkisa ng Kongreso?" Pangilinan said in a statement.

(Why only give them 5 months instead of the usual 25 years given to other franchises?)

"Parang asong nakagapos sa leeg ang kumpanya. Hihilahin lang nang mahigpit at hindi na maaaring tumahol at sa halip ay hihiyaw sa hapdi," he said.

(The company is like a dog in chains. It's neck can be pulled to stop it from barking and instead let it howl in pain.)

"Hangga't hindi naaprubahan ang franchise, maituturing pa rin na pag-atake sa media at press freedom at paghamak sa ating demokrasya ang nasabing usapin," he said.

(Until ABS-CBN's franchise is approved, th issue can be treated as an attack to the media and to press freedom, and an insult to our democracy.)

Still, Pangilinan said that the House's "temporary band-aid solution" is more acceptable compared to totally ignoring ABS-CBN's franchise woes.

"OK na rin, lalong-lalo na sa 11,000 empleyado ng ABS-CBN at sa milyon-milyong mga kapamilya na nanonood dito at nakakatanggap ng balita sa panahon ng pandemya. May pansamantalang lunas na Band-Aid," he said.

(This is okay for now especially that there are 11,000 ABS-CBN employees and millions of viewers who need information during this pandemic. At least there is a temporary band-aid solution.)

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano defended his chamber's move, saying extending ABS-CBN's temporary license until 2022 will place the network under "more political pressure."

"Kung bibigyan natin hanggang end o middle of 2022 ang ABS-CBN, lalong mapupunta under political pressure ang ABS-CBN kasi mangyayari niyan pag nag eeleksyon ng March, April, May, maraming tatawag sa inyo na, 'Pag kayo hindi kayo aayos, wala kayong franchise sa administrasyon namin,'" Cayetano said in an exclusive interview on TV Patrol.

(If we will give ABS-CBN a provisional franchise until the end or middle of 2022, it will be placed under more political pressure because during the election season in March, April, May, a lot of people will call you to threaten you.)

"I'd rather the whole of 2021 and the whole of 2022, may 25-year franchise na kayo kung ibibigay para you can guarantee the independence of the newsroom," he said.

(I'd rather that you have a 25-year franchise for the whole of 2021 and the whole of 2022 - should Congress decide to give it - so that you can guarantee the independence of the newsroom.)

"Also para mayroong pressure sa amin. Kung gagawin namin yan until the end of our term, walang pressure sa amin," he said.

(Also, so that there is also pressure on us. If we will be allowed to do that until the end of our term, there will be no pressure on us.)

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano has repeatedly blamed the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) for "succumbing" to the pressure of Solicitor General Jose Calida on the shut down of ABS-CBN.

In March, the NTC had committed to allow ABS-CBN to operate until June 2022, but suddenly issued a cease and desist order against the network on May 5 after receiving a letter from Calida.

Calida earlier urged the Supreme Court to nullify ABS-CBN's franchise for allegedly violating a Constitutional ban on foreign ownership. That franchise has since lapsed.

ABS-CBN has denied all allegations of irregularity in its operations in a Senate hearing and has repeatedly clarified that the company never broke the law in its 65 years of service. 

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