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Congress to tackle ABS-CBN franchise

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Congress will tackle the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN Corp. after the network signed off on Tuesday night in line with a cease-and-desist order from the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).

Proponents of the bills seeking to approve a fresh 25-year franchise for ABS-CBN in the House of Representatives have pushed for immediate hearing on the measures.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez proposed that the House may opt to grant a temporary franchise to ABS-CBN should the chamber fail to immediately approve the renewal application.

Rodriguez, who chairs the constitutional amendments panel, filed yesterday a joint congressional resolution granting a provisional franchise to the network, valid until the end of the 18th Congress on June 30, 2022 following expiration of its franchise on Monday.

Three days after warning the NTC against issuing a provisional authority to ABS-CBN, Solicitor General Jose Calida yesterday defended the commission order stopping the operations of the media giant after its franchise lapsed on May 4.

“Why blame the NTC when they are only following the law?” Calida, government’s lead legal defender, said.

“Without a valid and subsisting franchise from Congress, the NTC cannot allow any broadcasting entity to operate,” he added.

Calida passed the buck to Congress.

“The bill renewing ABS-CBN’s franchise has been pending in Congress since 2016. The question we should be asking is, why hasn’t Congress acted on it? Who is at fault here?” he asked.

Last February, Calida filed a petition before the Supreme Court to void the network’s franchise for alleged violations.

“Now the remedy is for the House to speed up its hearings on my proposal for a temporary franchise and for the grant of a new 25-year broadcasting service privilege,” he said.

Rodriguez also proposed that any new franchise granted by Congress should include an express provision authorizing the NTC to provisionally allow a franchisee with an expired franchise and a renewal application pending with the House to continue operating until its application is approved or rejected.

He believes that the matter might not be addressed immediately if brought before the courts.

“Filing cases in court or appealing the NTC order before the Office of the President will be useless because the battle is now with Congress,” Rodriguez told The STAR.

Lawmakers urged the House committee on legislative franchises to set a hearing on the bills even when they are supposed to prioritize measures to address the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis, including the economic recovery stimulus program and the protocols for a “new normal.”

Albay Rep. Joey Salceda and Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza said the House would be able to approve the franchise renewal application in just one week, if there would be support from their leadership.

“We can actually approve the franchise in just one day if we really wanted to. But if we need to debate, we can have the vote in one week and we are certain that we will win,” Atienza said.

Salceda agreed with Atienza, saying the panel has prepared for the hearings until the NTC “preempted” the calendar and issued the cease and desist order (CDO).

“We are predisposed to approve the franchise renewal. We can hear and approve it in one week,” Salceda said in an interview.

Salceda said there is a need to address the issue, citing a study his team conducted showing that the ABS-CBN shutdown could lead to 2,600 new COVID-19 infections due to increase in social interactions by over 15 million viewers of the network.

Salceda, who chairs the ways and means committee, admitted that the matter would be a “distraction” to Congress that is supposed to focus on COVID-19 measures.

Legislative franchise committee chairman Franz Alvarez expressed disappointment over the NTC’s action and vowed to set a hearing soon on over 20 pending ABS-CBN franchise bills.

He said officials of the NTC would be summoned to explain why they issued the CDO despite their commitment during a hearing last March that they would allow ABS-CBN to remain on-air while the House deliberates on the franchise renewal application.

NTC officials have explained that the action was based on the opinion of their legal division, notwithstanding the threat of Calida to file graft charges against them should they allow the network to continue airing with an expired franchise.

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