ABS-CBN defenders make last stand: ‘Why punish a company that did not breach laws?’

The defenders of ABS-CBN in the House of Representatives insisted the embattled media network deserves a franchise because government officials cleared it of any wrongdoing.

This was the final message of Deputy Minority Leader Carlos Zarate, who delivered the closing arguments in favor of ABS-CBN as the House committees on legislative franchises and good government and public accountability wrapped up their joint hearings on Thursday, July 9. (READ: Scenarios: What happens to ABS-CBN franchise after House panel vote?)

“Ang tanong ko po: bakit natin paparusahan ang isang kumpanya na walang pagkakasala?” asked the Bayan Muna representative.

(My question is: why would we punish a company that did not breach our laws?)

In his speech, Zarate argued ABS-CBN was able to defend itself against all accusations, with with different government agencies clearing the network over issues of taxes, labor conditions, and foreign ownership.

“Ito ay naging pagkakataon para mapatunayan natin na kahit sa pinakamasusing pagsasala, lumulutang ang katapatan at ang integridad ng ABS-CBN. At sino ang mga nagpatotoo? Mismong mga ahensya ng gobyerno,” said Zarate.

(This became a chance for us to prove that even with intense scrutiny, ABS-CBN’s honesty and integrity still prevailed. And who proved these right? Government agencies themselves.)

When the dual citizenship of ABS-CBN chairman emeritus Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III was questioned, the Department of Justice confirmed he is both Filipino and American.

Several legislators also claimed the network is owned by foreigners because ABS-CBN Holdings sold Philippine Depositary Receipts, which are financial instruments used by media entities to allow foreign investments without violating the constitutional rule that media companies should be 100% Filipino-owned.

Zarate pointed out that the Securities and Exchange Commission echoed ABS-CBN’s argument that PDRs holders do not have rights to own or manage the network.

Bureau of Internal Revenue officials have also repeatedly told lawmakers that ABS-CBN has been paying the proper taxes in the past two decades.

Zarate, however, had to concede that several labor cases have been filed against ABS-CBN over the years. He represents the party-list group Bayan Muna, which has long been fighting for security of tenure in the country – conceded several labor cases have been filed against ABS-CBN.

Yet Zarate still did not count this as a reason to close down the media giant.

ABS-CBN is applying for a legislative franchise after its old one expired on May 4. The National Telecommunications Commission has since ordered it to cease its television and radio operations to stop broadcasting its TVPlus and Sky Direct channels.

Marcoleta: ABS-CBN's rebuttals 'inadequate'

But Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta, one of ABS-CBN’s staunchest critics, completely disagreed.

He said the only opinion that matters in ABS-CBN’s franchise application is that of Congress, as the Constitution bestowed upon lawmakers the responsibility to grant or reject franchises of broadcast networks.

“It must be emphasized that contrary to ABS-CBN's submission, it is not the view of the Securities and Exchange Commission that matters here. It is not the opinion of the Department of Justice that will prevail, not even the Bureau of Immigration or other agencies. It is the will of Congress that should be accorded due respect,” Marcoleta said in his closing arguments.

He had to stop his speech halfway through, however, after the House lost power for about 10 minutes.

This did not deter Marcoleta as he would later continue arguing ABS-CBN’s executives and lawyers were “inadequate” in their defense of the networ.

The Sagip congressmanslammed ABS-CBN for “posturing” to be of service to the Filipino people, when the the media conglomerate is allegedly just out to protect the business interests of its owners, the Lopez family.

“It’s not about service. It’s about convenience, the advantage and all the benefits that come with it. It's not about the Filipino people. It's all about itself, nothing more, nothing less,” Marcoleta said in his closing arguments.

He once again raised red flags over ABS-CBN’s subsidiaries like Big Dipper Digital Content and Design Inc and the Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation Inc, arguing these are being used by the network as tax shields.

Marcoleta also said ABS-CBN’s block-time deal with Amcara Broadcasting Network was “usufruct” as the media giant was the one that bought Amcara's transmitters.

“Amcara has no shows of its own. It has no other client except ABS-CBN. This is usufruct, not block-timing,” said Marcoleta.

He also zeroed in on ABS-CBN’s alleged unfair reporting, claiming it has long been the practice of the network to favor candidates during the elections. The network has already denied this.

Much like other critics of ABS-CBN, Marcoleta closed his speech by rejecting ABS-CBN’s contention that killing its franchise application would be an attack on press freedom.

“Kung tatanggapin natin ’yon, ang prangkisa will become a matter of right. Hindi na po siya pribilehiyo. Wala na tayong discretion, puro ministerial na lang,” Marcoleta said.

(If we will be accepting that, then franchises will become a matter of right. It will not be a privilege anymore. We will not have discretion over it and instead just perform a ministerial duty.)

“It is high time that the sovereignty of the airwaves be restored to the people, the ones who will finally decide to whom and when to grant this special privilege called franchise,” he added.

Verdict out soon

At the end of the almost 5-hour hearing, House committee legislative franchises chair Franz Alvarez formed a technical working group (TWG) that would be summarizing all points raised and make recommendations on ABS-CBN’s franchise.

The TWG is composed of Camiguan Representative Xaiver Jesus Romualdo, Cebu 3rd District Representative Pablo John Garcia, and Marikina City 2nd District Representative Stella Quimbo.

They are expected to present their findings to the mother committee on Friday, July 10, the day the House panel may finally hand down its verdict on ABS-CBN.

Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano already said he wants lawmakers to exercise a conscience vote.

But on Thursday, he also told his colleagues that the main issue in ABS-CBN’s franchise is not press freedom, but the practice of big businesses to meddle with the media to protect their interests.

Two party-list representatives already withdrew their authorship of the ABS-CBN franchise bills. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.