Scenarios: What happens to ABS-CBN franchise after House panel vote?

Mara Cepeda
We tackle 3 possible scenarios for the embattled network, which is at risk of staying off-air for the remainder of the Duterte presidency

DEFEND PRESS FREEDOM. ABS-CBN employees and supporters light candles outside the network's Quezon City office on June 30, 2020 to call for the passage of its franchise in Congress. File photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – After 12 hearings spanning over a month, the House committees on legislative franchises, along with good government and public accountability, are set to wrap up deliberations on ABS-CBN’s franchise application on Thursday, July 9.

Legislative franchises committee chair and Palawan 1st District Representative Franz Alvarez said those who are lobbying for and against ABS-CBN will be given a chance to summarize all their arguments on Thursday before the franchise approval is put to a vote.

Only the legislative franchises panel members can cast their vote, but Alvarez said they are not expected to hand down their verdict on Thursday. No exact date for the voting has been scheduled yet. 

The network’s future rests on the hands of 92 legislators: 46 members of the legislative franchises panel and 46 House leaders who are ex-officio members of the panel. The Speaker, the Majority and Minority Leaders, and their deputies have voting powers in all House committees by virtue of their ranks in the leadership.

When the committee decides to vote on ABS-CBN’s franchise, a quorum must be established, meaning 1/5 of all members of the panel must be present at the hearing. 

The House rules state that if there are ex-officio members present, they will be included in the total number of members that will be used to determine quorum. 

ABS-CBN – which the National Telecommunications Commission already shut down after the network’s old franchise lapsed last May 4 – needs to get a majority vote if it wants to get a reprieve from the House panel. 

What are the possible scenarios? There are 3 possible scenarios that will come out of the House committee’s vote. These are: 

Scenario 1: ABS-CBN’s franchise application goes to the House plenary for debates. 

This will happen if the legislative franchises committee members decide in favor of the embattled network. This is the best scenario for ABS-CBN.

The committee-approved bill granting the embattled network a fresh franchise would then be sponsored in the plenary, where the entire 302-chamber can debate on its merits.  

But if this happens, it will still be a long way to go before ABS-CBN can go back on air. The House needs to approve the bill on 2nd and 3rd readings before it can be transmitted to the Senate. 

House approval of the franchise can happen in August at the earliest, however, since Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano earlier said the lower chamber would decide on ABS-CBN’s fate by that month

The measure also needs to go through another 3 readings in the Senate before it can successfully hurdle Congress. 

Senators can do this in a matter of days, considering that it took them only between 11 to 20 days to approve the franchises of other major broadcasting networks. 

But if ABS-CBN is met with strong opposition in the Senate as much as it did in the House, then senators can refuse to schedule their franchise hearings for months – much like what happened in the lower chamber. 

The first House bill that would have renewed ABS-CBN’s now-expired franchise was filed on July 23, 2019, yet the House committee on legislative franchises started its hearings only on March 10, 2020. (READ: What’s taking Congress so long to tackle ABS-CBN’s franchise?)

ABS-CBN earlier told senators they may have to begin retrenching workers starting August if their franchise is not granted by then.

Scenario 2: There will be more hearings on ABS-CBN’s franchise. 

This will happen if the committee rejects ABS-CBN’s franchise. In this case, House committee on good government and public accountability chair Jose Sy-Alvarado told Rappler ABS-CBN can file a motion for reconsideration or refile its franchise application.

“They can make a motion for reconsideration or re-file their application. Marami namang paraan (There are a lot of ways), and I am very sure, ABS knows it all,” Sy-Alvarado said.

Alvarez also told Rappler his panel would be forced to hold another hearing to discuss ABS-CBN’s appeal.

“Puwede mag-appeal once within that hearing or within 24 hours… [Magkakaroon ng] hearing ulit [ang] members para ma-consider [ang] appeal,” Alvarez said. 

(They can make an appeal once within that hearing or within 24 hours… There will be another hearing so members can consider the appeal.) 

Any House member can also choose to file another bill granting ABS-CBN a new franchise, challenging the decision of the committee. 

“Puwede po. Pero hahaba na naman ‘yan,” Alvarez said. (That is also possible. But the process will again take long.)

There is no guarantee, however, that the legislative franchises committee will immediately hear this newly-filed bill. It is possible for the measure to remain pending at this level until the end of Duterte’s term.

Scenario 3: ABS-CBN stays closed for the remaining two years of the Duterte presidency.

If ABS-CBN exhausts all of its possible options and the House – either the committee or the plenary – still rejects or refuses to act on its franchise, the Philippines’ largest media network will remain off-air for the remainder of President Rodrigo Duterte’s term. 

ABS-CBN can try again in 2022, when Duterte is no longer president – assuming elections are held and he steps down in accordance with constitutional processes.

It will be a severe blow to press freedom, which has long been under siege under the Duterte administration. 

The last time ABS-CBN was shut down was in 1972, the beginning of 21-year martial rule under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It would reopen only in 1986, when the strongman was ousted by the EDSA People Power Revolution. (READ: Enrile echoes ABS-CBN: Lopezes did not lose ownership during Martial Law takeover

What are the accusations lodged against ABS-CBN? The President himself has long been out to see the fall of ABS-CBN, which displeased him after the network failed to air around P6.6 million worth of political advertisements that the Duterte campaign had paid for.

In the 12th House hearing on Monday, July 6, ABS-CBN president and chief executive officer Carlo Katigbak explained they were unable to broadcast these Duterte ads because of a lack of air time, since campaign ads are regulated in the country. 

Katigbak added that ABS-CBN failed to air the ads of many other candidates in 2016, including those of defeated presidential bet Mar Roxas. 

The network has already returned P4 million to the Duterte camp. Katigbak admitted ABS-CBN was late in processing the refund for the remaining P2.6 million and apologized to Duterte for this. The President, however, refused to accept the balance and instead asked ABS-CBN to donate the money to charity. 

In the past month, legislators had grilled ABS-CBN’s executives and lawyers over the network’s supposed violations of the terms of its franchise. These included allegations of foreign ownership through the Philippine Depository Receipts that ABS-CBN had sold, possible violations of labor laws, and the network’s alleged ploy to use its subsidiaries as tax shields. 

ABS-CBN had denied all the allegations and maintained its operations in the past two decades were above-board. 

The House panels, however, are now asking the National Bureau of Investigation to probe into the network’s supposed “deception” during the hearings. 

The dual citizenship of ABS-CBN chairman emeritus Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III was also questioned, with several legislators arguing he cannot own ABS-CBN since he is allegedly a foreigner. This is false, as Lopez is a Filipino since birth because he was born to Filipino parents. He is also American because he was born in the United States. 

ABS-CBN also endured 11 hours of grilling on Monday after several lawmakers accused the network of irresponsible coverage of issues – from the Dengvaxia scandal to the network’s own franchise hearings. 

No less than Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano himself – Duterte’s running mate in 2016 – has accused ABS-CBN of unfair election coverage, though he did not show up during Monday’s hearing and instead submitted a written testimony against the network to the House committees.

ABS-CBN Integrated News and Current Affairs chief Regina “Ging” Reyes defended the network against accusations of political bias, saying their journalists strive to keep their biases in check and correct mistakes as needed. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.