'Neutral President': Congress can vote on ABS-CBN franchise without fear, Duterte spox says

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 6) — Lawmakers should deliberate on the renewal of franchise of ABS-CBN without fear of President Rodrigo Duterte’s wrath, his spokesperson said on Wednesday.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque directly referred to Duterte’s allies in the Congress who failed to grant a fresh 25-year franchise to operate before ABS-CBN’s license expired on May 4, leading to the closure of one of the country’s biggest broadcast network.

“Ang paninindigan ng Presidente, neutral siya diyan. Huwag po kayong mag-alala, mga congressmen. Hindi po magagagalit, hindi matutuwa ang Presidente kung inyong ipasa ang prangkisa ng ABS-CBN. Completely neutral ang Presidente,” he said in an interview with state-owned television network PTV.

[Translation: The President is neutral on this issue. The congressmen shouldn’t worry because he will not be happy nor sad if they decide to grant ABS-CBN a franchise. President Duterte is completely neutral on this.]

Duterte’s spokesman said the Senate and House of Representatives should maximize the return of the Congress sessions amid the COVID-19 pandemic to finally grant the franchise so ABS-CBN can return on air after the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) ordered it to immediately stop broadcast operations on Tuesday.

A joint resolution granting a temporary franchise to ABS-CBN Corporation to operate until June 2022 was filed at the House on Wednesday. Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said the process of passing this resolution will be faster as compared to hearing legislative franchise bills.

“Mas mabilis ‘yung joint House resolution because this one, alam mo kasi for the franchise bill of 25 years, we have to hear from all stakeholders. It's quite difficult now because of COVID-19. We are going to have a virtual session and committee hearing so we can now pass this within the month,” he told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: The joint House resolution will be completed faster. To pass a franchise bill that will last for 25 years, we have to listen to all the stakeholders. That will be a challenge with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.]

He urged the Senate to come up with a similar resolution and to act on the issue after NTC failed to keep its word and so-called “double crossed” the Congress that it will issue a provisional permit to ABS-CBN.

“Huwag na nating ibigay sa NTC, niloloko lang tayo ng NTC. What we are going to do is to have Congress itself act on this House joint resolution with the Senate,” the lawmaker added.

[Translation: Let us not depend on NTC, we are being duped. Now the Congress has to act on it.]

Numerous bills have been filed before the House since November 2016 to extend ABS-CBN’s franchise for another 25 years to continue airing on radio and free TV. These have been set aside by the "too busy" 18th Congress — which is dominated by Duterte’s allies — as the country faced the Taal volcano eruption and the COVID-19 pandemic in the months running up to the expiry of the franchise.

TIMELINE: ABS-CBN franchise

With several bills languishing in the House as time was running out, House panel on Legislative Franchises Chairman Rep. Franz Alvarez and House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano wrote a letter to the National Telecommunications Commission urging commissioners to grant the network a provisional permit. But instead of holding its promise to issue a provisional authority, NTC issued a cease and desist order.

Rodriguez said that with the expiration of ABS-CBN’s franchise, all bills seeking to renew the license is no longer valid. So he filed a new bill that will grant the network a new franchise. This is the 12th ABS-CBN franchise bill filed in the 18th Congress.

The House Committee on Legislative Franchises is now waiting for Cayetano’s go signal to hold hearings on ABS-CBN’s franchise application. Ako Bicol party-list Rep. Alfredo Garbin said Alvarez told him that he’s ready to start the hearings once he gets the green light from Cayetano.

Roque reminded lawmakers that Duterte is no longer holding a grudge against the media giant after ABS-CBN President Carlo Katigbak apologized and explained the network’s failure to air his campaign ads. The President has been publicly ranting against ABS-CBN since assuming office in 2016, saying the network refused to carry his campaign commercials even if they have been already paid for.

“You can vote as you please. Simula pa po hindi naman siya nanghihimasok at nagdidikta. Sana po makarating ang mensahe sa mga kaalyado ni President sa Kongreso,” he said.

[Translation: You can vote as you please. The President does not meddle nor dictate. I hope this reaches his allies in the Congress.]

Rep. Edcel Lagman said the House might have been reluctant to pass the bill due to Duterte's ire against the network. He reminded all lawmakers to act independently, without fear or fervor to the President. He added House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano — Duterte’s close ally — is ultimately to blame for dragging its feet on the ABS-CBN.

“This is a lesson for the HRep that it should exercise its constitutional powers independently without succumbing to the President,” he told CNN Philippines’ The Source.