Bill refiled seeking franchise for ABS-CBN

ABS-CBN lost its franchise under the administration of President Duterte. Lawmakers now want to revive the franchise.

QUEZON CITY – A bill seeking to grant TV network ABS-CBN a fresh 25-year franchise has been refiled in the  House of Representatives.
The authors of House Bill No. 1218  are Representatives France Castro, Arlene Bross, and Raoul Danniel Manuel, who compose the  Makabayan bloc in the lower chamber of Congress.
“This is a challenge for Congress to defy the rising tyranny, to stand for freedom and democracy. Thus, urgent passage of this bill is sought,” the lawmakers said in the bill’s explanatory note.

ABS-CBN was ordered by the National Telecommunications Commission to shut down its free TV and radio operations in May 2020 after its franchise expired as the House, then dominated by allies of then President Rodrigo Duterte, deliberated on its application for a fresh broadcasting license.

Officers of the media giant were subjected to grueling hours-long hearings by the House legislative franchises panel, which tried to prove that ABS-CBN had, among others, existing tax liabilities and a bias against the government.

The move was seen by critics as an attack on press freedom.

“One of the largest and oldest networks in the Philippines was shutdown in 2020, not by the non-renewal of a congressional franchise, but because the then-highest political power in the land ‘used the presidential power’ to tell Congress to revoke it,” the lawmakers said.

Such was admitted by Duterte in June, claiming that the network “never paid taxes.” However, both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Bureau of Internal Revenue repeatedly clarified that ABS-CBN did not violate any corporate laws and has regularly paid its taxes.

Due to the shutdown, about 6,730 regular employees, 900 non-regular employees, and more than 3,325 talents lost their jobs, the bill read.

Non-renewal of the broadcast license “could be construed as an act against Constitutionally-protected freedoms, especially the right to a free and independent press,” it added.

In the 18th Congress, House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco said the matter will have to wait until the next set of lawmakers are elected in 2022.

ABS-CBN’s iconic Channel 2 frequencies have since been given to Advanced Media Broadcasting System, Inc., owned by billionaire Manny Villar who has close links to Duterte.

Meanwhile, the NTC gave Pastor Apollo Quiboloy’s Sonshine Media Network International the authority to operate Channel 43,  which used to be owned by Amcara Broadcasting Corp. The Lopez-led network used Channel 43 for its TVPlus channels under a blocktime deal with Amcara, whose legislative franchise expired in 2020.

Broadcast spectrum is a limited public resource. That said, an analyst believes it would be hard for ABS-CBN to regain the frequencies it lost during its painful shutdown.

“There may still be frequencies available but they (ABS-CBN) will have to go to the back of the line, as there may be other TV operators first in line for these frequencies… ABS-CBN will have to work with the Villar family’s  Advanced Media Broadcasting System, Inc. if they want to broadcast their content in their old channels,” Terry Ridon, convenor of Infrawatch PH, an infrastructure-oriented think tank, said.

“A good development on the other hand, is the content partnership of ABS-CBn with TV5 and Cignal, as the former can provide content to the latter platforms. The core strength of ABS-CBN has always been its content, whether news or entertainment, and it should have no problem providing the same high-level of content to its new platform partners,” Ridon added.