'Neutral' Duterte wants lawmakers to 'vote as they please' on ABS-CBN

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte is "completely neutral" on the ABS-CBN franchise renewal and wants members of the House of Representatives to vote "as they please," said Malacañang.

"The President will be neither angry nor happy. He is completely neutral. Vote as your conscience dictates," said Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque on Wednesday, May 6 in a PTV4 interview.

Since he was elected president in 2016, Duterte has been threatening ABS-CBN with closure, branding its owners – the Lopez family – "oligarchs." In December 2019, he taunted them to just sell the network

After months of foot-dragging at the House of Representatives, which is mandated to issue and renew franchises and is packed with Duterte allies, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) on Tuesday, May 5, issued a cease-and-desist order against ABS-CBN.

It came a day after its franchise expired and two months after NTC itself said it will grant ABS-CBN a temporary permit to operate.

The NTC is a quasi-judicial body under the executive branch. 

But Roque insisted the NTC made its decision independently, despite Solicitor General Jose Calida issuing a warning to the body only 3 days ago against giving ABS-CBN a provisional permit to operate.

Evading questions on whether this was the President's attack on press freedom, Roque kept insisting that even if Duterte wanted to approve the franchise renewal, his hands are tied.

Rights and media groups slammed the Duterte administration for the shutdown order. Even business groups urged the government to bring ABS-CBN back on air.

"If there is a law that says the President can issue a franchise or provisional authority, I guarantee you, within 5 minutes, the President will issue it... The President can't move," said Roque.

How about Calida's role? The Duterte spokesman also denied that Solicitor General Jose Calida played a part in the shutdown, yet a few sentences later, Roque said Calida's quo warranto petition  may have weighed on the minds of lawmakers deliberating on the franchise.

In fact, Duterte himself had mentioned the quo warranto petition when he spoke of the ABS-CBN shutdown.

"The President said, there's even a quo warranto petition pending which may have been considered by the lawmakers which made it hard for them to decide to grant the renewal. Maybe they are waiting for the Supreme Court," said Roque.

For months, Congress has dragged its feet on the franchise renewal, leading to its expiration on Monday and thus opening a window for NTC to shut down ABS-CBN's operations.

Calida filed a quo warranto petition in early February, accusing ABS-CBN of unlawfully exercising its franchise by allegedly offering paid broadcast without government approval and by allegedly allowing foreign ownership of the corporation.

The Solicitor General has also warned NTC against issuing ABS-CBN a provisional permit, clashing with Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra who said NTC may issue such provisional authority pending the franchise renewal.

Duterte did not say whose interpretation of the law he sides with, Roque said.

It's not the first time Calida actively worked towards the shutting down of a media entity critical of President Rodrigo Duterte. His office was also behind the Securities and Exchange Commission's investigation into Rappler's Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) that led to the agency's decision to revoke the media group's license to operate. 

Duterte's beef with ABS-CBN is well-known. He has railed several times throughout his presidency about the network and its owners – accusing them of "economic sabotage" and "swindling."

Several times, he threatened to block their franchise renewal.

"Ang iyong franchise, mag end next year. If you expect ma-renew 'yan, I'm sorry. I will see to it that you’re out," he said in December 2019.

(Your franchise will end next year. If you expect that to be renewed, I'm sorry. I will see to it that you're out.)

He had blasted ABS-CBN for failing to air his political advertisements during the 2016 presidential elections. ABS-CBN eventually apologized.

But Roque said Duterte has since "accepted the apology of the network and left its fate to both houses of Congress." – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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