SolGen warns NTC of graft charges if it issues ABS-CBN provisional permit

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 3) — The Office of the Solicitor General warned on the eve of the expiry of the legislative franchise of ABS-CBN Corporation that National Telecommunications commissioners may be slapped with graft charges if they give the broadcast giant a provisional permit to operate pending the renewal of its franchise.

“The NTC commissioners risk subjecting themselves to prosecution under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act should they issue the unlawful PAs (provisional authorities) to ABS-CBN Corporation and ABS-CBN Convergence in the absence of franchise,” Solicitor General Jose Calida said Sunday in a statement.

The government’s top lawyer, whose office also serves as the NTC’s legal counsel, said there is no law delegating Congress’ power to grant legislative franchises to the regulatory body.

He said the letter from House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and House Legislative Franchises Committee chair Franz Alvarez, and a Senate resolution cannot be used by the NTC as basis for it to grant ABS-CBN a temporary permit as they only express the sentiments of the legislature.

He added that the legal opinion issued by the Department of Justice, which the Office of the Solicitor General is under, could also not be used by the NTC as basis, citing a 2003 Supreme Court ruling which struck down a DOJ legal opinion on a similar matter.

Citing a 2014 Supreme Court case involving GMA Network, Calida said broadcasting companies can only get provisional permits from the NTC if they secure franchises from Congress and apply for certificates of public convenience from the NTC.

He added that a provisional authority to operate should only be issued while broadcast companies await the NTC’s issuance of certificates of public convenience and not when a company “has no valid and existing legislative franchise.”

He also said that the NTC can only issue an order for ABS-CBN to stop operations.

The NTC, during the House Committee on Legislative Franchises’ first and only hearing on ABS-CBN’s franchise, said it has agreed to issue the network a provisional authority to operate pending its franchise renewal.

The commission said this was based on the advice of the Department of Justice to let ABS-CBN operate based on “equity,” which Calida rejected in his statement.

Calida had earlier asked the Supreme Court to nullify the network's existing franchise, citing grave violations of the terms set by Congress back in 1995. He had also asked the high court for a gag order on his office as well as on ABS-CBN and its executives, actors, and employees.

The Supreme Court, whose deliberations have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, has yet to act on the petition.

Numerous bills seeking to grant ABS-CBN Corporation a fresh 25-year franchise remain pending in Congress.

Media outlets, as well as electricity companies and cable TV providers, are required to secure legislative franchises. Such bills must first be approved by the House of Representatives before they are acted upon by the Senate.

President Rodrigo Duterte has been publicly ranting against ABS-CBN since assuming office, saying that the network refused to carry his campaign commercials even if they have been already paid for.

In 2018, Duterte said he will block the renewal of the network's franchise. Last year, he told the Lopez family to just sell the company to a new owner to boost its chances of staying in business.

However, the President accepted the apology offered by ABS-CBN President Carlo Katigbak during a Senate hearing for airing an anti-Duterte ad during the 2016 campaign which was paid for by the opposition.

CNN Philippines’ Anjo Alimario and Melissa Luz Lopez contributed to this report.