‘House franchise panel under pressure from all sides’

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    AN administration lawmaker admitted yesterday that House members feel “pressured” by President Duterte’s stand against the renewal of the legislative franchise of television network ABS-CBN.

    Isabela Rep. Antonio “Tonypet” Albano, a vice chair of the committee on legislative franchise, said the pressure is coming “from all sides.”

    Aside from the President, pressure is also coming from the TV giant that has been running stories obviously aimed at pressuring lawmakers to extend the franchise, Albano said.

    “Pabayaan ninyo naman sana kami (Please leave us alone). We’re not only being pressured by the President, but even ABS-CBN has been running stories,” he said.

    Duterte has been criticizing ABS-CBN for the media network’s failure to air his campaign ads during the 2016 presidential polls despite its collection of his payment.

    Last Monday, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a quo warranto petition with the Supreme Court seeking the revocation of the network’s franchise for its alleged “abusive practices.”

    ABS-CBN’s 25-year franchise expires on March 30. Albano and Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Tuesday said the network can continue operating even after its franchise expires because the bills seeking a franchise renewal are still pending.

    Several bills seeking a renewal of the franchise have been pending at the House since the last 17th Congress.

    Albano said it is unfair to accuse congressmen of stonewalling amid calls from various sectors for the panel to hear the franchise bill. He said they have been busy with other important issues like the Taal Volcano eruption last month and the threat of the 2019 novel coronavirus, now called COVID-19.

    He said that as a comparison, the public should know that even the 17th Congress had failed to act on the same measure.

    “Kung gusto niyong mag-blame game, ‘yung ibang committees, ‘yung legislative franchise committee (If you want to play the blame game, the other committees) in the 17th Congress did not even act on it because of so many other pressing issues,” Albano said.

    LEGAL QUESTION

    Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said the operation of ABS-CBN beyond the expiration could pose a legal question.

    He said if the legislative franchise expires, it follows that ABS-CBN cannot continue operating.

    Drilon said the practice in the past years has been that a legislative franchise is deemed extended if there is a pending bill for its renewal but it was a subject of debates in the plenary last year.

    “Ang opinion noon, ang expectation noon dahil wala namang opposition, pwedeng ituloy para kapag na-approve na, in effect, mag-retroact yung approval ng franchise to the day the franchise expired. That is being used today in order to justify that the ABS-CBN franchise may continue. (The opinion before, the expectation in the past because there was nobody opposing it, was a network can continue operations so that when the franchise renewal is approved, in effect, it will be retroactive to the day the franchise expired),” Drilon told radio dzRH.

    UNFAIR

    Albano said fellow lawmakers are also applying pressure on the panel. He said the committee had held executive meetings about the franchise to avoid pressure from outside.

    “Can you imagine there’s pressure not only from the President, there’s pressure from Congressman Lito Atienza, our colleagues in Congress, there’s pressure from the media,” he told ANC in an interview.

    He appealed to ABS-CBN to be careful about its “wordings” when reporting stories about the franchise renewal bill because “you are actually applying pressure on us also which is actually bad for our Congress as a whole.”

    Albano urged the network to respond to the issues raised in the quo warranto petition it filed before the Supreme Court “as it is highly probable that those same concerns would be tackled in our hearings.”

    In a statement released late Tuesday afternoon, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano urged the network to do some “soul-searching” and reflect on “how we have all reached this point.”

    He gave the assurance Congress will fulfill its constitutional mandate to review and decide on the franchise issue, despite the OSG’s pending action before the Supreme Court.

    As to the timetable for the hearings, Cayetano said that while “there are certain interests who want to rush this process, we stand by the leadership of the 18th Congress and the committee on legislative franchises on how to prioritize urgent and important legislation.”

    Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, one of the authors of the bills seeking to extend the network’s franchise, said Calida “is wrong in usurping the power of Congress by trying to go to the Supreme Court.”

    “It will be dismissed immediately on the grounds that, first, the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction and second, the petition has no basis. The repeal of a franchise is within Congress’ domain. We in Congress will not be deterred by this filing,” he said.

    Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, concurrent presidential spokesman, maintained the President had nothing to do with Calida’s petition.

    He also refuted claims that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the franchise issue.

    “They are wrong. Under the Constitution, the Supreme Court can act on any controversy when it involves an abuse of discretion,” he said while reiterating that Calida was just doing his job of filing charges when he sees any irregularity or unlawful act.

    CALIDA SLAMMED

    Print and broadcast reporters covering the justice beat (Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and the Department of Justice) slammed Calida for calling out ABS-CBN reporter Mike Navallo after the filing of the quo warranto petition.

    In a statement, the Justice and Court Reporters Association (JUCRA) said Calida could and should have answered the query of Navallo on the reason for filing the petition instead of showing hostility to the reporter.

    “Solicitor General Jose Calida is more than welcome to present his side in a calm, logical manner on acts and issues involving him. He has consistently refused to do so. Instead the solicitor general accused Mr. Navallo of persecuting him and urged him menacingly to practice law instead of journalism,” JUCRA said.

    “Calida, by his hostility to Atty. Navallo, failed to rise to the exacting standards of his profession both as an officer of the court and as a ranking civil servant,” it added.

    The group said what Calida has done is an “affront” to the media’s constitutional right to report and ask questions.

    Calida refused to be interviewed by reporters after the filing, saying he was in a hurry for an appointment.

    When Navallo pressed him for details, Calida again said he has to go and then asked the latter if he is a lawyer.

    When Navallo answered in the affirmative, Calida said Navallo has been criticizing him and told the reporter to just practice his profession so they would face each other in court.
    Navallo replied he was just doing his job as a journalist.

    Reporters covering Malacañang issued a statement saying it is advocating “respect for press freedom as an act of solidarity with ABS-CBN.”

    The Malacañang Press Corps (MPC), an independent organization composed of journalists who are regularly covering President Duterte and activities in the Palace, also vowed to remain vigilant against attempts to “weaponize legal remedies and processes to suppress free expression.”

    “In light of the recent developments, particularly to ABS-CBN’s franchise issue, the MPC deplores any attempt to curtail these freedoms, in any way and form. In recent years, the MPC has taken a stand against threats and attacks on press freedom, including efforts to spread fake news and discredit the traditional media. Once more, the MPC firmly advocates respect for press freedom as an act of solidarity with ABS-CBN,” MPC said.

    Other media groups have expressed r support for ABS-CBN like the Defense Press Corps of the Philippines, the PNP Press Corps and the Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines (EJAP) which asked Congress to renew the network’s franchise. – With Raymond Africa, Jocelyn Montemayor, and Ashzel Hachero