Why Congress can be the best—and worst—place for broadcast franchise renewal

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 18 2020 08:42 PM | Updated as of Feb 18 2020 09:10 PM

MANILA — The Philippine government’s attempt to shut down the largest media network in the country has placed under scrutiny the process of granting broadcast franchises, a power wielded by Congress.

In an unusual move, Solicitor General Jose Calida, the government’s top lawyer, jumped the gun on congressmen and asked the Supreme Court to invalidate ABS-CBN Corp.’s franchise because of supposed violations.

Calida’s quo warranto petition piqued members of both Houses, who insist that only the legislature is empowered by the constitution to decide on a broadcast network’s franchise.

But even the process at the House of Representatives has been painfully slow, with at least 11 ABS-CBN bills stuck at the Committee on Legislative Franchises.

This has not always been the case with other applications for franchise renewal, said human rights lawyer Theodore Te.

“Usually, it’s not controversial,” he told ABS-CBN News. “No one really ever bothered to find out what happened during the process of granting franchises.”

DUTERTE FACTOR

But in the case of ABS-CBN, President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly attacked the network, at one point saying he would “make sure that you’re out” and on another occasion, telling owners to “just sell” the company.

The Duterte factor looms large over congressmen in deciding the fate of the network’s franchise, which will expire on March 30, several of them told this reporter in separate interviews.

The country’s political system allows a sitting president to wield so much power and influence over the House of Representatives, often through pork barrel, which has been officially abolished.

But control remains especially under Duterte, who continues to enjoy staggering popularity during the second half of his term, the period when incumbent presidents tend to lose their influence heading to the next election.

“Depoliticizing” the process of franchise renewal will be a challenge or perhaps, close to impossible, said Cagayan De Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, author of a bill extending ABS-CBN’s franchise for another 25 years.

By their very nature, congresssmen are “always political personalities” elected to “represent our constituents,” he said.

This also explains the wisdom behind tasking legislators with allocating broadcast frequencies, a limited resource and a public utility.

CONTENT-NEUTRAL

But as shown in the case of ABS-CBN, renewing a broadcast franchise can also be used by certain politicians to “settle scores” with a network, human rights groups pointed out.

This does not mean, though, that the responsibility should be removed from Congress, said Rodriguez, noting that public utilities such as broadcast frequencies “affect the welfare and the interest of the Filipino people.”

“I cannot think of any other way,” he said in an interview.

Congressional action on the allocation of broadcast frequencies should be limited to “technical arrangements” and involve nothing about what a media network should report or not, said journalist Vergel Santos, former board chairman of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

It’s called “content-neutral” regulation where “you never tell media entity what to say and how to cover something,” said constitutional law professor Tony La Viña.

La Viña said Congress could also tap the Philippine Competition Commission to make sure that a single company does not hold multiple franchises.

“You’re using airwaves, you’re using resources of the state. That should be allocated fairly and equitably,” he told ABS-CBN News.

“In that sense, the PCC is a good place to do that.”

But deciding the fate of a broadcast franchise ultimately rests with members of Congress, under the current political setup.

“That’s why our leadership should go higher than personal grudge or personal experiences with TV or radio stations” and consider the national interest of free expression and a free press, Rodriguez said.