House poised to grill ABS-CBN on 2016 election coverage

The House of Representatives is set to hold its 12th hearing on the franchise of ABS-CBN on Monday, July 6, and they are set to tackle an issue that has long been a thorn in President Rodrigo Duterte's side: the network's 2016 election coverage.

In the last hearing on Thursday, July 2, House committee on good government and public accountability vice chair Mike Defensor said Monday's hearing will be tackling the alleged unfair reporting of ABS-CBN.

This will be the first time that the House will directly discuss the issue after spending its hearings zeroing in on the media giant's ownership, its labor practices, and its broadcasting strategy.

The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) earlier ordered ABS-CBN to halt its free television and radio operations after its legislative franchise expired on May 4, following Congress delaying hearings for its renewal. (READ: TIMELINE: Duterte against ABS-CBN's franchise renewal)

The NTC then barred the embattled network from broadcasting using Channel 43, in effect stopping its TV Plus channels. State regulators also stopped the Sky Direct service of ABS-CBN subsidiary Sky Cable Corporation.

What happened in 2016? During the 2016 campaign season, ABS-CBN failed to air around P6.6 million worth of political advertisements paid for by Duterte's campaign. The network has since returned at least P4 million. ABS-CBN president and chief executive officer Carlo Katigbak told senators they were delayed in paying the remaining P2.6 million, but it was "no longer accepted" by Duterte.

In the same campaign season, ABS-CBN aired an advertisement showing clips of Duterte cursing, uttering a controversial rape remark, and saying he is ready to kill. Senator Antonio Trillanes IV paid for this ad. ABS-CBN later explained that it was "duty-bound to air a legitimate ad."

ANTI-DUTERTE. An advertisement attacking President Rodrigo Duterte was aired on ABS-CBN in 2016, paid for by his political enemy Antonio Trillanes IV.

Screenshot from Facebook video

Last February 24, ABS-CBN chief executive officer Carlo Katigbak apologized to Duterte for their failure to air his advertisements. Duterte accepted Katigbak's apology, but said he could not assure them of their network's franchise renewal.

Alan Peter Cayetano, Duterte's then-running mate and now House speaker, also earlier said that he took issue with the network's coverage of their campaign, accusing it of "taking sides" and "favoring" other candidates.

What has been discussed? Lawmakers previously questioned the ownership of ABS-CBN, focusing on the dual citizenship of its chairman emeritus Gabby Lopez. The Department of Justice has since clarified that Lopez has been Filipino since birth as he was born to Filipino parents, and is also American because he was born in the United States.

Lawmakers also questioned ABS-CBN's use of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs), with Defensor claiming that PDRs are "means to hide foreign ownership."

ABS-CBN's legal counsel Cynthia del Castillo, as well as other legal experts, have pointed out that PDR holders have no right to manage and own the companies they bought PDRs from. (READ: EXPLAINER: Is Calida's ABS-CBN PDR theory bad for business?)

FILIPINO. ABS-CBN chairman emeritus Gabby Lopez.

Photo from ABS-CBN Corporation

Lawmakers have also raised questions about the status of contractual workers in ABS-CBN. According to Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Viña, it is ultimately up to Congress to decide if labor issues should be considered in the grant or rejection of a franchise. He said political dynamics often come into play – including the administration's gripes against the network.

Last Thursday, House Senior Deputy Majority Leader Jesus Crispin "Boying" Remulla accused ABS-CBN of using Amcara Broadcasting Network, owner of Channel 43, as a "dummy" to air its programs by having block-time arrangements.

ABS-CBN and Amcara denied the accusation, saying that their agreements are all aboveboard. They also explained that buying blocks of airtime is a common practice in the broadcasting industry and it is not illegal. – Rappler.com

Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.

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