POSTSCRIPT / May 7, 2020 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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ABS-CBN franchise awaits Du30 signal

THE SIGNAL of President Duterte, whether red or green, is being awaited on the franchise renewal of broadcast giant ABS-CBN which switched off its radio and television programs on the night of May 5 after its 25-year government permit expired.

While the network fell silent in its franchise area, its closure ordered by the National Telecommunications Commission whipped up a noisy debate over press freedom, layoff of workers in the midst of a pandemic, creeping tyranny, and such thorny issues.

The serving of the “cease and desist” (closure) order surprised many because an NTC provisional authority was expected since it was endorsed by the Department of Justice and both chambers of the Congress, which after all is the franchise-issuing entity.

Eyes have turned to Malacañang. Will President Duterte save the day for ABS-CBN and its following — as when he stopped on Monday the raising of the state health insurance premium of Overseas Filipino Workers from 2.75 percent to 3 percent of their salaries?

Seemingly mellowed Duterte also surprised many when he made an uncharacteristic public apology Monday to some billionaire businessmen – the Ayalas and Manuel V. Pangilinan — whom he had denounced in relation to their water distribution business in Metro Manila.

He even went as far as inviting Pangilinan and the Ayalas to talk. On Twitter, MVP said: “I would like to thank the President for his remarks tonight, most especially for his sincerity and kindness.”

In the case of OFWs, Duterte not only suspended the raising of the rates being charged by the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., but also ordered the exemption of overseas workers from paying the premiums.

Being in a forgiving mood, which he attributed to his having been “humbled” by the coronavirus (COVID-19) infecting a wide swathe of the population and straining government resources, there is speculation that he may also flash the green light to save ABS-CBN.

Duterte had accused the network of failing to carry some of his paid election campaign ads in 2016. The network had apologized (accepted by Duterte), explaining that when the ad materials came all the airtime slots had been taken.

But the big debate over ABS-CBN’s closure is not about money. The most ringing point of the public is about press freedom, an issue that mainstream and social media, as well as press guilds and organizations, zealously defend from any and all threats.

One aspect being highlighted is that if a giant outfit such as ABS-CBN could be harassed and intimidated by government, what awaits the more modest media who dare to report on abuses, corruption and incompetence of public officials?

Solicitor General Jose Calida has filed with the NTC an opposition to the renewal of the network’s franchise alleging some violations. This week, the commission gave the network 10 days to comment on the SolGen’s blocking the grant of provisional authority.

New-emerging taipan eyes ABS-CBN?

MEDIA is abuzz with reports that a new-emerging taipan with Chinese connection is waiting for an opening to buy control of ABS-CBN. Duterte once warned the owners (Lopez clan) to perish the thought of ever renewing their franchise and to just consider selling out.

But with the President’s apparently changing mood, observers are looking for hints that he might look more kindly on the Lopezes now, as he did with the Ayalas and Pangilinan.

Presumably to deflect focus from the President, his new spokesman and a ubiquitous senator (who has become a weather vane of presidential thinking) are pointing out that the granting of franchises is a job of the Congress, not of the Palace — which is correct.

Created by Executive Order on July 23, 1979, the NTC is independent insofar as its regulatory and quasi-judicial functions are concerned – also correct.

The NTC’s quasi-judicial decisions are appealable only and directly to the Supreme Court, contrary to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra’s off-the-cuff remarks about appeals passing through lower courts.

But in the real world, Duterte is virtually the government. With the NTC being an agency attached to the Department of Information and Communications Technology which is under the President, those who know their way around know where to go.

The NTC’s closure order was a surprise. Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba, agency head since 2009 serving in the Arroyo, Aquino and Duterte administrations, has assured the Congress he would give ABS-CBN provisional authority to operate during the franchise hearings.

That was exactly what happened in similar instances in the past when provisional authority was issued even after old franchises had expired and renewal hearings were ongoing.

Those precedents could be cited to go around the “dura lex sed lex” mantra of Calida who insists that the law is hard, but clear that no network operation is to be allowed unless there is a subsisting valid legislative franchise.

The franchise of ABS-CBN expired May 4. Strictly speaking, the industry leader has no more legal leg to stand on, notwithstanding its herculean job of aggregating and broadcasting news and entertainment and then going further to serve the extended kapamilya outside.

But if the ABS-CBN’s Lopezes catch the 75-year-old mayor still “humbled” by the coronavirus from Central China, they might just be able to coax him to reach for the switch to the green light.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 7, 2020)

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