House panel warns NTC of contempt for not allowing ABS-CBN to keep operating

The House committee on legislative franchises warned the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) it may be held in contempt for not issuing media network ABS-CBN the provisional authority to continue operations.

In a statement on Tuesday, May 5, House panel chair Franz Alvarez said the lower chamber has the right to issue a show cause order against the NTC if it would give in to pressure from Solicitor General Jose Calida.

Calida warned the NTC on Sunday, May 3, that only Congress could grant franchises to public utilities such as broadcasting companies for them to operate in the country.

"With the legal opinion of the Department of Justice and the authority given by the House of Representatives, there is no reason for ABS-CBN to discontinue or stop their operations until we make a final decision," Alvarez said.

"If the NTC chooses to succumb to the pressure of the Solicitor General, and disregard the commitments they gave under oath, we reserve the right to call them before Congress and explain why they should not be held in contempt," he added.

Alvarez and Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano earlier wrote a letter "enjoining" the NTC to grant ABS-CBN provisional authority so it can continue operating pending the renewal of its franchise, which already expired on Monday, May 4.

The House panel on March 10 already held its first hearing on the bills seeking to renew ABS-CBN's franchise. During this hearing, NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba told lawmakers they would "most likely" release the temporary permit to ABS-CBN.

But in a complete turnaround, the NTC ordered the media giant to stop operations on Tuesday. Justice Secretary Menardo Gueverra said the NTC's cease and desist order against ABS-CBN is "immediately executory." (READ: 'Grave abuse of power,' senators condemn NTC flip-flop on ABS-CBN)

Cayetano is yet to issue a statement on the closure of ABS-CBN.

Congress has only itself to blame

Both houses of the 18th Congress had, for months, sat on the bills renewing ABS-CBN's franchise, with the Senate holding its first hearing on February 24, and the House on March 10

President Rodrigo Duterte and Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano – running mates in the 2016 elections – had repeatedly accused ABS-CBN of unfair media coverage during the polls.

Cayetano had said the House could not just rush hearing the ABS-CBN franchise bills, saying enough time should be given to all parties to argue for or against the renewal. He previously said a provisional authority from the NTC would have been "sufficient" for the ABS-CBN to continue its operations.

But for administration-allied lawmaker Joey Salceda, legislators have no one else but themselves to blame for giving the NTC the opportunity to order ABS-CBN's closure.

"My position on the matter has always been clear: It is the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress to determine whether a broadcast network should be granted the privilege to operate, and whether that privilege should remain," the Albay 2nd District representative said.

"The NTC action should serve as a warming to Congress that if we do not do our job, the Executive will do it for us, step into any existential void, fill in any power gap guided only by its own narrow worldview of what constitutes national interest," Salceda added.

Opposition lawmaker Edcel Lagman said past statements of Cayetano, Alvarez, and Cordoba on the NTC's issuance of the provisional authority "were all part of a charade."

"Even the Executive, through the Solicitor General, has objected consistently to such solution. The NTC's cease and desist order against ABS-CBN's operations dated 05 May 2020 confirms this travesty," Lagman said.

He then urged the House leadership to prioritize the passage of the bill that would renew ABS-CBN's franchise, citing the need for more credible sources of information as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"While the Congress is in session and during the effectivity of the cease and desist order, the House of Representatives can prioritize the enactment of the long-pending franchise renewal to which there is no formal or credible opposition," Lagman said.

"The shuttering of ABS-CBN is even more tragic because the public, now more than ever, needs and depends on its broadcast information as COVID-19 continues to rampage," he added.

Ako Bicol Rep. Alfredo Garbin, for his part, said: “This is a complete turnaround, we want fairness and equity. If NTC provides provisional permit to other networks with expired permit why not it will not be granted to ABS-CBN? The power to issue a franchise to ABS-CBN is the exclusive domain of Congress to deny or approve it. But we are questioning the complete turnaround of NTC.”

“One thing, franchise is considered as local bill. Senate could not act on it because it should be the Congress needs to act on it before they could take acttion. Because of this supervening event, we will force to conduct public hearing to tackle the case of ABS-CBN,” Garbin added. – with a report from Rhaydz Barcia/ Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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