MANILA—The House of Representatives on Tuesday abandoned a bill that would have reopened ABS-CBN sooner rather than later, opting instead to take the longer route of committee deliberations, which could keep the broadcast network off the air much longer.
The decision, hammered out during an afternoon majority caucus, was a complete departure from Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano’s proposed provisional franchise, which was already passed on second reading last week.
Instead of tackling a temporary franchise bill until October this year, congressmen decided to take up the network’s long-pending application of a new 25-year operating franchise.
“I, together with the House of Representatives’ leadership, have decided to forego with the provisional franchise and immediately proceed with the hearings on the full 25-year renewal application of the ABS-CBN franchise,” Cayetano said during the plenary session.
Cayetano promised to “immediately proceed” with hearings by the Committee on Legislative Franchises, which did not prioritize the ABS-CBN franchise renewal bills until it expired last May 4.
Cagayan De Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, who backed the interim franchise bill, said both chambers of Congress were not likely to finish the approval process for a regular franchise, given only 8 session days before they go on sine die break on June 6.
“I’m afraid of the lack of material time,” he told ABS-CBN News. “Kung di matapos by June 3, mahihirapan talaga. Mas matagal nakasara.”
Congress will resume session on July 27 for President Duterte's 5th State of the Nation Address.
Prior to the majority caucus, minority Rep. Edcel Lagman warned Cayetano that abandoning the provisional franchise “would gravely compound the inordinate delay in the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise.”
The House dropped the temporary franchise bill following heated debates on Monday when several congressmen cited complaints over ABS-CBN’s alleged violations of its old franchises.
Some congressmen complained about the swift pace with which the House was pushing the approval of ABS-CBN’s temporary franchise.
Others sought deliberations on a regular 25-year franchise, instead of a provisional one, which was tackled by the House constituted as a Committee of the Whole.
Following Tuesday’s caucus, the majority agreed that issues raised against the network were “quite credible and quite important” and should be “best ventilated and threshed out” before the legislative franchises committee, said Majority Leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez.
Cayetano laid down “non-negotiable ground rules” before the committee would tackle ABS-CBN’s franchise, citing the need to focus on defeating the coronavirus pandemic.
Congressmen, he said, would “multi-task” and should vote on the franchise bill in accordance with their conscience and not their politics.”
Cayetano also insisted that committee hearings would be “fair, impartial, comprehensive, and thorough."
The short-lived provisional franchise proposal was recalled on Monday following concerns that its one-day approval on first and second reading last week violated the constitution, which requires separate days.
But instead of going through the formalities of another second reading, going through a period of debates and individual amendments, the chamber suspended deliberations in the evening.
At a Senate hearing the following day, ABS-CBN president and CEO Carlo Katigbak said the network’s objective was “hopefully to secure a 25-year franchise.”
“But if securing a short-term franchise is the fastest way to go back on air, then we have no objection to that,” he said.
Katigbak also warned that the company might consider laying off employees by August if it failed to resume its free TV and radio broadcast. At risk are over 11,000 jobs.
"We continue to lose a substantial amount of money every month and I'm afraid that if we cannot get back on air soon, by August we may already have to consider beginning a retrenchment process," he said.