The largest broadcaster in the Philippines remained on the air Monday after its license expired during the day, while politicians and officials debated whether it should be allowed to operate with a temporary permit.
The franchise for ABS-CBN officially lapsed after Congress, the branch of government with the authority to grant it a new one, delayed action for more than three years on an application to renew the network’s license.
Late Sunday, Solicitor General Jose Calida warned that the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) had no legal basis to grant the network provisional authority (PA) to stay on-air for the time being, as the agency had indicated it would do.
“The NTC cannot issue a PA when the broadcast company has no valid and existing legislative franchise,” Calida said in a statement, referring to the ABS-CBN, which has consistently questioned President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs that has left thousands dead since 2016.
The Constitution requires a franchise from congress before a broadcast firm can operate, and without one, it “can no longer continue its operations as a public utility,” Calida said.
ABS-CBN did not issue any statements about the expiry of its license and officials with the network declined to comment when contacted by BenarNews on Monday.
In March, the House of Representatives adjourned amid a coronavirus lockdown without taking up some bills that were pending before Congress on the renewal of the network’s license, according to Al Jazeera. As a quick solution, the justice department advised the telecoms commission to grant ABS-CBN a temporary permit, Al Jazeera reported on Monday.
After Duterte’s government ordered the COVID-19 lockdown in mid-March, “the NTC also said that all permits to operate and maintain broadcast, which are expiring within the quarantine period, would be automatically renewed,” and the permits would be valid for 60 days from the end of the lockdown, the Al Jazeera report said.
The ABS-CBN franchise that expired Monday was issued in 1995. In November 2016, Congresswoman Micaela Violago filed an application for a fresh 25-year-franchise for the network, according to an ABS-CBN timeline.
On Feb. 10, Calida petitioned the Supreme Court to rule against issuing the new franchise for ABS-CBN and its subsidiary, ABS-CBN Convergence. He accused the network of abusing the terms of its original license by operating a pay-per-view channel illegally, among other things.
A week later and with only 12 days left in the session, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon filed a resolution seeking to extend the franchise until the end of 2022, according to the timeline.
On Monday, the chairman of the House committee on legislative franchises, Rep. Franz Alvarez, said there was no reason for the network to stop airing after its license had expired and while it was still waiting for Congress to act on its application for the renewal.
“[T]he Committee enjoined the National Telecommunications Commission to allow ABS-CBN to operate until such time that the House of Representatives makes a decision on its application,” the congressman said in a statement, according to the Philippine Inquirer.
Meanwhile, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said she did not see any reason why the NTC could not grant a temporary license.
“Even more questionable is why the government’s chief counsel insists on shutting down a broadcast network in the middle of a health emergency, depriving the public of a critical means to receive timely and accurate information,” she said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic.
Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said the NTC could decide on its own.
“This is a matter that must be dealt with by the NTC as a quasi-judicial body and we should wait for the reply of the National Telecommunications Commission,” he told reporters on Monday, when asked to comment on Calida’s statement. “The president will follow whatever the decision is of the National Telecommunications Commission.”