House plenary vote on ABS-CBN franchise sought

Davinci Maru, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 25 2020 04:26 PM | Updated as of Jul 25 2020 08:33 PM

A noise barrage in support of ABS-CBN continues for another night in front of the network's broadcasting center in Quezon City on July 24, 2020. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA (UPDATE) - Several lawmakers on Saturday called for a plenary vote in the House of Representatives on ABS-CBN's failed franchise application, assailing as a "mistrial" the House panel's proceedings that led to its denial of the media network's bid for a new license for its free-to-air broadcast operations.

In a virtual forum organized by the Makabayan bloc, the lawmakers said the 305-member House of Representatives should decide with finality on ABS-CBN's fate, rather than just the 70 lawmakers who voted against its franchise -- a move they said was "injurious" to public interest and an error of judgement.

"The plenary should be given a chance to review the vote given by the Committee [on Legislative Franchises]. For me, it doesn't represent the whole... we have to reopen the issue and debate on it openly," Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza said.

For Atienza, the administration-backed chamber should scrutinize the committee's 40-page technical working group (TWG) report, which recommended the denial of ABS-CBN's bid for a fresh franchise, because it was allegedly predetermined.

"Bulatlatin natin 'yung (Let's examine the) report. Tignan natin (Let's check) word for word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, kung saan sila naligaw (where they got lost). Dahil malinaw 'yung 12 hearings, wala silang napatunayan (Because it was clear they failed to prove any wrongdoing in the 12 hearings)," he said.

"This is a very dangerous direction for our country where Congress starts to behave as the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner, all rolled into one," Atienza added.

CHERRY-PICKING TESTIMONIES

Agusan del Norte 1st District Rep. Lawrence Fortun also voiced reservations on the TWG report, which lawmakers noted was put together at great speed despite lengthy and grueling hearings and swiftly approved by the committee's regular and ex-officio members in a vote on July 10.

"The committee in its vote to kill or deny the application for franchise is definitely not on the right of side [of history], but the House as a whole may pagkakataon pa (there's still a chance) by way of correcting the mistake of the committee," he said.

The 3-person TWG said in its report that the Filipino citizenship of ABS-CBN chairman emeritus Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III was doubtful. The company's Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) also "appear to have been utilized to allow foreign ownership," which is a violation of the 1987 Constitution, it said.

The TWG report also stated that "ABS-CBN's labor practices are less than exemplary" and that the prescribed process of the Lopez family's reacquisition of the network after martial rule "was not followed."

The report was crafted by Cebu 3rd District Rep. Pablo John Garcia, Camiguin Rep. XJ Romualdo and Marikina 2nd District Rep. Stella Quimbo, who dissented to the recommendation, saying ABS-CBN deserves a new franchise. 

For Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate, the TWG was cherry-picking testimonies to fit a narrative that ABS-CBN did not deserve a franchise despite being cleared by regulatory agencies invited during the hearings.

"Kung talagang busisiin mo 'yung report, hindi lang full of inconsistencies tapos alanganin, parang nag-cherry-pick lang ng gustong testimonies. In fact, ang mga nakalagay doon ay 'yung mga testimonya na hindi galing sa resource persons natin from regulatory agencies," he said.

(If you look closely at the report, it's not only full of inconsistencies, it looks like they just cherry-picked from the testimonies. In fact, the testimonies cited there did not come from resource persons from regulatory agencies.)

Zarate also criticized the TWG report as inconclusive with its frequent use of "it appears."

To which Atienza responded, "It appears they [committee] committed an error of judgement, misappreciation of facts and provision of fairness and justice [to ABS-CBN]."

ABS-CBN employees and supporters hold a noise barrage outside the ABS-CBN Broadcasting Center in Quezon City on July 18, 2020. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

SCARING INVESTORS

Parañaque City 2nd District Rep. Joy Myra Tambunting also warned that shuttering ABS-CBN's TV and radio operations may spook investors because it sent a signal that the government could close down a business despite being compliant.

Zarate, meanwhile, said ABS-CBN's shutdown put into question the stability of the country's regulatory regime.

"If a big network like ABS-CBN na sinabi ng regulatory agencies na walang nagawang pagkakamali ay naipasara, ang tanong ngayon, how stable our regulatory regime is?" Zarate said.

(If they were able to shut down a big network like ABS-CBN, which regulatory agencies already said has no violations, the question now is, how stable is our regulatory regime?)

Atienza also had this to say: "It's not a good precedent. In fact, it creates a lot of instability in our business community. We'll suffer all the consequences on this eventually."

For Gabriela party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas, President Rodrigo Duterte had a hand in the shut down of ABS-CBN based on his pronouncements.

The President had repeatedly vowed to pull the plug on the broadcaster over alleged political partisanship, she said.

Brosas was also referring to Duterte's recent statement of dismantling the country's oligarchy, which involved the Lopez and Ayala families.

'SAMPAL SA ATIN'

While Fortun praised efforts to bring ABS-CBN back on air through people's initiative, he said this would be a slap on their faces for not acknowledging public clamor.

"Parang sampal sa atin ito since you are not doing your work, you are not our voice anymore, kami na lang ang gagawa," he said.

(It's like slap on our faces since you are not doing your work, you are not our voice anymore, we'll do it instead.)

For the Agusan del Norte lawmaker, it's all the more important to bring the issue on ABS-CBN's franchise to plenary.

Section 32 of Article 6 of the 1987 Constitution states that the people can directly propose and enact laws or approve or reject any act or law or part thereof passed by the Congress or local legislative body after the registration of a petition after signed by at least 10 percent of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least 3 percent of the registered voters.

"Bakit isusubo ang mga mamamayan na sila mag-initiate na puwede naman nating gawin para sa kanila. (Why would we allow the people to do this when we can do it for them?) Let's bring their voices to plenary. Our decision must be reflective," Fortun said.

The lawmakers also cited a July 2020 survey from pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS), which revealed that 3 out of 5 Filipinos wanted Congress to renew ABS-CBN's broadcast franchise.

The survey also showed that denying the network a franchise was a major blow to press freedom.

On Friday, a volunteers group launched "People's Initiative for Reforms and Movement for Action" or PIRMA Kapamilya campaign to bring ABS-CBN back on free television.

Citizen Volunteers aim to gather 7 million signatures nationwide in order to grant the media giant a "people’s franchise."

The country's telecoms body shut down ABS-CBN's free TV and radio operations on May 5 after its franchise was left to expire on May 4 despite a long-pending renewal application at the House.

A month later, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) served 2 cease-and-desist orders against ABS-CBN's digital broadcast in Metro Manila and its sister company Sky Cable's direct broadcast satellite service nationwide.

In a historic vote of 70-11, the Committee on Legislative Franchises on July 10 junked ABS-CBN's application because the "applicant was seen as undeserving of the grant of a legislative franchise."

ABS-CBN was first shut down in 1972 when dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law. 

Some 48 years later, the network was forced off the air under the Duterte administration, which local and international groups condemned as a brazen attack on press freedom.

In the absence of a congressional franchise, the network, which employs 11,000 workers throughout its various subsidiaries, said it would cease the operations of some of its businesses and lay off workers effective Aug. 31, 2020.