House drops bill granting interim franchise to ABS-CBN

Mara Cepeda

The House of Representatives will no longer tackle the bill granting embattled media network ABS-CBN an interim franchise valid until October 31, 2020.

Instead, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said on Tuesday, May 19, that the House will “immediately proceed” in resuming the hearings on the bills granting ABS-CBN a new 25 year-franchise.

“Because of all this divisiveness and after all consulting with members of the House, the political parties and the regional groups – I thank you for that, for the consultation, for your belief in the leadership – I, together with the House of Representatives leadership, have decided to forego with the provisional franchise and immediately proceed with the hearings for the full 25-year renewal application of the ABS franchise,” the Speaker said during the plenary session.

The move comes after the House recalled its second reading approval of House Bill (HB) No 6732, penned by Cayetano and other ranking congressmen, that would grant ABS-CBN a temporary franchise while the lower chamber continues its hearings on the franchise renewal bills.

The bill’s passage on second reading was marred by constitutionality issues, as the House approved it on first and second reading on the same day on May 13. The Constitution says a bill will become a law if it is “passed 3 readings on separate days.”

In his lengthy speech on Tuesday, Cayetano listed 3 “non-negotiable” ground rules for the resumption of House committee on legislative franchises’ hearings on ABS-CBN, the dates of which the Speaker is yet to announce.

He said lawmakers have to multi-task so that those who wish to participate in the ABS-CBN hearings would still continue working on pending measures related to the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Cayetano said the hearings must also be “fair, impartial, comprehensive, and thorough” to allow all parties to air their messages of support to or grievances against ABS-CBN.

He then told his colleagues to “vote in accordance with our conscience and not our politics.”

“Let us give Chair Chikoy Alvarez and our committee on legislative franchise complete autonomy… Let us give them [the chance] to carry out a fair, comprehensive, and thorough hearing. Let it be continuous, para walang makakapagsabing pinipigil, tinitigil, we’re dragging our feet (so that no one would tell us we’re delaying the hearings, that we’re dragging our feet),” Cayetano said.

The House had delayed hearing the bills that would have renewed ABS-CBN’s now-expired franchise, giving room for the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to issue a cease and desist order to the network after its franchise expired.

Cayetano earlier said a provisional authority to operate from the NTC would have been “sufficient” to keep ABS-CBN on-air while Congress is still deliberating its franchise issues.

But Solicitor General Jose Calida warned the NTC against doing so. The NTC would later tell the House that it would have been an “encroachment” of Congress’ domain had it issued ABS-CBN the temporary permit to operate.

Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman said he “bewails the abandonment” of HB 6732. Lagman supports the ABS-CBN franchise renewal but pointed out the possible constitutional violations of HB 6732’s second reading approval last week.

The opposition congressman said the interim franchise would have been an “ideal compromise” for ABS-CBN to resume operations as the House continues its hearings.

“There is no overriding reason to abandon HB No. 6732 except for a furtive and sinister outside interference in the discharge of the constitutional duty of the House. Forfeiting the approval of House Bill No. 6732 is a culpable waste of legislative work spanning almost a week, which could have been devoted to equally important measures,” Lagman said.

He also argued press freedom took a hit after the House dropped the passage of HB 6732.

“Without any timetable for the committee on legislative franchises to start and conduct the ‘immediate’ hearings on the pending bills for the franchise renewal, the fetter on freedom of the press and free expression continues to derogate constitutionally guaranteed rights,” said Lagman.

The House leadership made the decision to drop the interim ABS-CBN franchise bill hours after the Senate began its hearing on the network’s franchise. During the hearing, some senators proposed that when the House bill arrives in the Senate, the Senate should push for and pass a 25-year franchise for ABS-CBN, and then tackle this at the bicameral conference committee.

During that hearing, ABS-CBN president and CEO Carlo Katigbak said that the media giant may begin retrenching some of its workers by August if it is not allowed to operate by then.

ABS-CBN had filed a petition before the Supreme Court against the NTC order, but the High Court had yet to act on it. On Tuesday, the SC asked the NTC to respond to the petition, and the House and the Senate to file their separate comments on the petition. – Rappler.com

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