MANILA (2nd UPDATE) -- Congressmen on Friday voted to "kill" a new broadcast franchise for ABS-CBN Corp., permanently shutting down a major part of the country’s largest media network, in what is seen as part of a worsening crackdown on press freedom under President Rodrigo Duterte.
Voting 70 to 11, the Committee on Legislative Franchises dashed ABS-CBN's hopes to resume operations under a new franchise, months after the president repeatedly threatened to pull the plug on the network over complaints of partisanship in the 2016 presidential elections.
Two congressmen inhibited and one abstained.
The committee voted to "deny the application of ABS-CBN Corporation for a franchise to construct, install, establish, operate and maintain radio and broadcasting stations in the Philippines."
"By no means can this franchise application be related to press freedom," according to the findings of a technical working group that prepared the resolution against ABS-CBN.
"It is what it is--a denial of a privilege granted by the State because the applicant was seen as undeserving of the grant of a legislative franchise."
Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo, who represented the minority in the 3-member drafting committee, dissented on the resolution denying ABS-CBN's franchise application.
The committee decision meant that ABS-CBN's franchise application was now "killed" although the bills were referred to as "laid on the table" following the rules, said Anakalusugan Rep. Michael Defensor, who was among at least 4 congressmen who led the charge against the network during the hearings.
Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano appealed for understanding on "why the decision had to be so."
"This has by no means been an easy process for anyone involved in these proceedings, and I can assure our kababayans (countrymen) that the final resolution was not arrived at by the committee without serious consideration as to the overall impact it will have on the nation," he said in a statement.
Echoing Duterte's issues against ABS-CBN, Cayetano was also a vocal critic of the network, often citing new reports and interviews he deemed unfavorable to him.
JOBS IN JEOPARDY
The vote puts in jeopardy the jobs of more than 11,000 workers under the ABS-CBN group, particularly its broadcast business whose programs enjoyed a massive reach of more than 80 million Filipinos here and abroad.
The company had been losing P30 million to P35 million in daily ad revenues following a cease-and-desist order from the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) over an expired franchise last May 5 or over 2 months ago.
In the past, the NTC allowed other media networks to remain on the air while applying for a new one in Congress.
Bills pushing for a new ABS-CBN franchise had been stuck at the House franchise committee since 2014, and didn't move until public pressure over the NTC shutdown order prompted congressmen to hear the application in earnest.
ABS-CBN's push for a new franchise was further complicated by relentless attacks from Duterte, who, in December 2019, declared that he would "see to it that you're out."
Duterte's later appeared to have softened his position on ABS-CBN's franchise bid, following an apology from the network's president and CEO last February over a negative campaign ad aired against the then Davao City mayor in the 2016 presidential elections.
The president accepted the apology and Malacañang later said that he would be "neutral" on the franchise application.
'EYE OF THE NEEDLE'
ABS-CBN's shutdown last May came nearly 50 years after the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos seized the network shortly after declaring martial law in 1972.
The Lopez family battled to regain the company's assets and resume broadcast soon after Corazon Aquino was swept to power during the 1986 Edsa Revolution that toppled Marcos.
Last month, congressmen scrutinized how the Lopezes reacquired ABS-CBN from a Marcos crony during the course of 12 marathon hearings, which also grilled network lawyers and executives over alleged violations of its old franchise.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate lamented how ABS-CBN was made to "go through the eye of the needle" by a joint House panel when franchise hearings were traditionally swift and non-contentious.
Government regulators and other officials cleared ABS-CBN over allegations of tax fraud, violations of foreign ownership restrictions in mass media, among other legal issues.
The company was also deemed to have complied with infractions identified during a labor department inspection in 2018.
But despite testimonies favoring ABS-CBN during the hearings, Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta said it was not the opinion of the Securities and Exchange Commission or those of the justice and labor departments that would "prevail."
"It is the will of Congress that should be accorded due respect," he said in his summation of allegations against ABS-CBN on Thursday.