MANILA (UPDATED) -- ABS-CBN's struggle to resume broadcasting will move to a crucial phase on Thursday with a congressional committee inching closer to a vote on its application for a new operating franchise, following weeks of intense and unprecedented scrutiny.
The vote will come depending on the length of separate summations of both the allegations against the shuttered media network and its point-by-point reply presented in the course of 12 committee hearings, Rep. Michael Defensor told ABS-CBN on Wednesday.
But no voting is set for Thursday, July 9, based on the agenda on the Committee on Legislative Franchises.
Going by the merits alone, ABS-CBN “rightly deserves” a new 25-year broadcast franchise, said Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman.
But Lagman’s support will not be counted as a vote in a process, which is expected to be affected by “other factors aside from the merits alone,” said Agusan del Norte Rep. Lawrence Fortun.
Only the 46-member franchise committee and 48 ex-officio members, such as Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, can vote on whether to approve the franchise bills for plenary deliberations.
The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) swiftly pulled the plug on the largest media network in the Philippines on May 5, a day after its franchise was left to expire despite an application first filed in Congress back in 2014.
The Supreme Court en banc is set to take up ABS-CBN's petition to resume broadcast, with the network losing P30 billion to P35 billion in daily revenues since the closure.
Rodrigo Duterte’s unexpected election victory in 2016 put the company in a difficult position of having to seek approval ultimately from the new president, who had repeatedly threatened to shut it down over “biased” news coverage and unaired local campaign ads.
The president publicly softened his stand early this year after ABS-CBN president and CEO Carlo Katigbak testified before the Senate last February and apologized for airing a negative political ad in the 2016 presidential elections which the Duterte camp sought to stop days before the 2016 elections.
Duterte accepted the apology, but said that it was up to Congress to decide on ABS-CBN's franchise application, and that he would not interfere.
Malacañang has since insisted that Duterte was “neutral” on ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal bid, saying congressmen should “vote according to your conscience.”
Fortun predicted that ABS-CBN would hurdle the legislative franchises committee if the application would be decided based on Cayetano’s call on Monday for a “conscience vote.”
“After the marathon hearings, 12 long sessions of fishing expedition that unnecessarily subjected people to insults and shabby treatment, but in the end, yielded nothing substantial to prove the allegations against the network, we ask ourselves—ano ba talaga ang dapat na boto ko dito?” he told ANC’s Matters of Fact.
The penultimate hearing last Monday was the first time, he said, that congressmen examined the news content of a media network applying for a broadcast frequency, a property of the State, the grant of which is left to the legislature.
Franchise hearings in the past were typically non-controversial and focused on the technical aspect of broadcast frequencies and equipment.
But Duterte's repeated criticism of ABS-CBN--at one point declaring that he would "see to it that you are out"--made the network's shutdown one of the biggest threats to press freedom in the country, media groups warned.
Several congressmen last Monday spent hours raising personal issues against ABS-CBN’s allegedly biased news coverage, questioning even how news headlines were written.
Kabayan Rep. Ron Salo withdrew his bill granting a new franchise, claiming that his party-list group was convinced by the evidence presented against ABS-CBN during the hearings.
Salo also took to the floor via Zoom criticizing this reporter over an article describing the conditions he set for ABS-CBN in his bill as "strict regulations."
Veteran journalist Melinda De Jesus warned against using media “bias” as a condition for broadcast franchise applications.
“It is alarming, it is absolutely dismaying, that it should now be, as though we’re trying to throw the tides back on our natural growth on democracy,” said De Jesus, executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
Congressmen who took turns questioning ABS-CBN over alleged violations of its own franchise got flak on social media, with Cavite Rep. Jesus Crispin Remulla running to the National Bureau of Investigation to complain of "cyberbullying."
Last Monday, he defended his demeanor during the hearings, saying, "We are doing this job for this country. We are not doing this job for personal reasons."
Speaking to ANC, Defensor last week denied that some congressmen were in search for anything that could justify a permanent shutdown of ABS-CBN.
"(That) would be a little bit excessive," he said. "There are constitutional issues that I would have to consider and, for me, those are the major issues."
One such issue involved Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDR), an investment instrument that can be sold to foreigners but did not mean ownership of a company. The constitution requires full Filipino ownership in mass media.
Some congressmen also questioned the dual citizenship of former ABS-CBN chairman Eugenio "Gabby" Lopez III, claiming it violated the foreign ownership restrictions in local media companies.
Other congressmen, however, thought otherwise. “Di natin pwedeng sabihin na bawal habang walang batas na nagbabawal,” Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said during a hearing in June.
(We can't say dual citizens can't own mass media since there is no law that says so.)
RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY
ABS-CBN was accused of not paying the right taxes. But the Bureau of Internal Revenue told the committee that the network had "no outstanding delinquent accounts."
The ABS-CBN Group of companies, which includes ABS-CBN Corp., also paid a total of P71.5 billion in taxes from 2003 to 2019.
The broadcast network's labor practices, including the hiring of non-regular employees working in different programs, came under intense scrutiny during the franchise hearings.
In response, Katigbak said the company was looking to regularize more of its workers, while providing more benefits who were still not.
The 2-month shutdown, which could become permanent should the House committee reject a new franchise, has threatened the livelihood of some 11,000 employees.
"Do we want to be part of such a callous and cruel decision?" Fortun asked.
"Let them be reminded that this vote will be historic and if I were a member of the committee, I would ask myself, 'Would I not be proud to be on the right side of history?'"
"So that when the time comes for me to leave the halls of Congress, I can look back at my days in the legislature, with pride and honor and dignity, because once upon a time, when I was made part of a decision on a critical and momentous issue, I followed what my conscience dictated and stood for what was just and right," he added.