Senate Majority Leader Migz Zubiri stressed it would be “highly irregular” to shut down a major network during the coronavirus crisis when information dissemination is crucial.
He said major networks should be allowed to continuously provide information unless they violated a provision in their franchise.
“If this happened to GMA, TV5, IBC, we will do the same in fighting for your rights to operate,” he said, referring to other major broadcast firms in the Philippines.
He insisted there is no reason why the NTC should not grant a provisional authority to ABS-CBN. He said other media companies have been allowed to operate past the expiration dates of their franchise.
“I see no legal impediment for ABS-CBN to continue its operations. As far as I am concerned, [ABS-CBN will] continue operations while waiting for NTC to grant provisional authority,” he said.
The franchise of ABS-CBN franchise is supposed to expire on May 4, 2020, but the National Telecommunications Office (NTC) said that all broadcast franchises that would expire “within the quarantine period shall automatically be renewed and shall continue to be valid 60 days after the end of the government-imposed quarantine period.”
Because of this, Solicitor General Jose Calida threatened National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) officials with prosecution if they grant ABS-CBN Corp. a provisional authority.
But Senator Sonny Angara said Calida’s threat is in conflict with Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra’s opinion that NTC can issue a provisional authority pending discussions on the franchise extension by Congress.
“Congress has expressed the same opinion and it has support in past legislative and executive practice,” he said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto noted that this issue has been settled during hearings.
“I expect the NTC to allow ABS-CBN to continue to operate until Congress makes a final decision re franchise within this Congress,” said Recto.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) should be reminded of its mandate under the law.
Under the Revised Administrative Code, he said the OSG shall act as lawyer of government agencies including the NTC.
“There is a conflict of interest there when the lawyer threatens to sue its client. It is NTC and not OSG that is granted regulatory functions under the law,” emphasized Drilon.
He said this is not the first time that NTC will be issuing a temporary and conditional permit to operate. He said it has been done in the past and has been recognized in the 2003 case being cited by Calida.
“The Court never barred the NTC from issuing temporary permits to operate. It merely said that the broadcaster cannot completely do away with the requirement to apply for a franchise, as provided under the law,” said Drilon.
He also said the grant of a franchise is a sovereign power granted in Congress.
“Congress already wrote to the NTC. What power does the Solicitor General have to contradict the body that acts as the repository of the sovereign power? The OSG cannot say that an act of the legislative or an agency of the executive branch is illegal. That is for the courts to decide,” he said.
Also, assuming that the OSG and the NTC take conflicting positions, Drilon said the Administrative Code provides that all disputes involving questions of law shall be settled or decided by the Secretary of Justice.
“There is nothing in the law which allows the OSG to overturn an opinion by the Secretary of Justice,” Drilon stressed.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the NTC already said they will be guided by the DOJ legal opinion.
While a franchise renewal or approval rests on the Congress by way of legislation, subject to the concurrence or veto by the president, he related that an extension of the existing franchise by way of a joint or separate resolutions adopted by either or both houses of Congress has no existing jurisprudence, he said.
“That said, it is a good test case for the SC to rule on,” said Drilon.
Calida had also questioned the validity of ABS-CBN’s franchise before the Supreme Court, arguing that it should be declared null and void for allegedly offering illegal pay-per-view options, and its supposed violation of the foreign ownership clause in the Constitution.
ABS-CBN denied the Solicitor General’s allegations in a Senate investigation in February, and answered the franchise challenge before the high court in March./Stacy Ang