Poe wants Senate to discuss ABS-CBN's compliance with franchise terms

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Senator Grace Poe wants the Senate committee on public services, which she chairs, to "look into" the operations of broadcast giant ABS-CBN to determine its compliance with its franchise terms.

"This is part of the Senate's oversight function over any franchise and not just ABS-CBN, as mandated by the Constitution and the Senate Rules," Poe said in a statement on Thursday, February 13.

But Senator Panfilo Lacson said this may violate the sub judice rule, considering that Solicitor General Jose Calida's quo warranto petition against ABS-CBN with the Supreme Court precisely questions the franchise and how the company complied with it.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III initially said Tuesday that Lacson "may be right," adding he will call a caucus among senators on Monday, February 17.

After Poe raised oversight functions of the Senate on her resolution, Sotto later said that he will "leave it up" to her then, saying that it's "her committee anyway."

Power to review 

Poe maintained that due to the "gravity of [Calida's] allegations and its possible effects, the committee has deemed it appropriate to lay the groundwork for a possible inquiry in the spirit of public interest."

In Senate Resolution 322, which was filed on Wednesday, February 12, Poe raised Section 14 of Republic Act No. 7966, which approved ABS-CBN's franchise until March 30 this year, which states:

"This franchise shall be subject to amendment, alteration or repeal by the Congress of the Philippines when the public interest so requires and shall not be interpreted as an exclusive grant of the privileges herein provided for."

Poe asserted in her resolution, through the quoted provision, that the power to amend, alter, or repeal, "is corollary to the power to review" ABS-CBN's compliance to the terms and conditions of its franchise.

"Be it resolved by the Senate…directing the Senate committee on public services to look into, in aid of legislation, on the operations (sic) of ABS-CBN Corporation to determine compliance with the terms and conditions of its franchise under Republic Act No. 7966," Poe said in SR 322.

Lacson raised doubts on the move. "I will suggest to the [Senate President] and our colleagues. We may have to discuss it in caucus first as it may be violative of the sub judice rule, now that the SC has already asked ABS-CBN to file their comment within 10 days," Lacson said.

"My understanding is, the alleged violations of the legislative franchise by ABS-CBN, is the meat and substance of the quo warranto petition filed by the SolGen," Lacson added.

Poe however said the Senate hearing would "not preclude" any action in the Supreme Court and House of Representatives, which is tasked to hold hearings in relation to the March 30 expiration of the media giant's franchise.

Poe added that the issue of sub judice when it comes to Senate hearings "has been resolved" by the High Court, quoting the SC en banc 2009 decision on Romero, et al. vs Estrada: "Ongoing judicial proceedings do not preclude congressional hearings in aid of legislation."

In separate statements, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Senator Sherwin Gatchalian shared the same view that Poe's resolution falls under congressional oversight.

Drilon said that it's the "Congress and not the Supreme Court" that has jurisdiction over the review of ABS-CBN's compliance to the terms and conditions of franchise granted by Congress.

"The Senate, under the Poe's resolution, is simply being called to exercise its oversight functions. The hearings on the Poe [resolution] will enable the Senate make a judgement on the proposed renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise when it is transmitted by the House," Drilon said.

The minority leader differed from the view of Lacson and Sotto, who are not lawyers. 

"No violation of the sub judice rule. Congress is a co-equal branch simply performing its mandated and independent oversight functions in looking at compliance of ABS-CBN of the terms of the franchise," Drilon said. 

Foreign ownership? 

Gatchalian, meanwhile, pointed out that having Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) is not an indication of foreign ownership.

"There is no ownership in PDR. Ginawa nila nag-isyu sila ng isang instrument para ma-enjoy mo 'yung kita ng isang kumpanya. Pero di ibig sabihin ikaw ang may-ari," Gatchalian told reporters (There is no ownership in PDR. It's like issuing an instrument so you can enjoy the income of a company. But it doesn't mean you are an owner)," he said. 

"In my interpretation, it's not a violation," added Gatchalian who worked in his family's businesses before joining politics.

A PDR is a financial instrument that allows foreigners to invest in a Filipino company without owning any part of it or being involved in day-to-day management. 

"It's normal. A lot of companies are doing that. GMA7 is doing that. A lot of media companies have that," Gatchalian said.

Prior to Calida's filing of a quo warranto petition, President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly threatened ABS-CBN's franchise, saying that it would be better for the Lopez-led company to be sold.

Various media and citizen groups condemned the government's legal attacks on ABS-CBN, saying they're part of the Duterte administration's continuing moves to silence critics and independent voices. – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

image