'Grave abuse of power,' senators condemn NTC flip-flop on ABS-CBN

Senators on Tuesday, May 5, slammed the National Telecommunications Commission for not keeping its word on issuing provisional authority to broadcast giant ABS-CBN, as they called the move a "grave abuse of discretion."

The Senate was conducting its hybrid session when the news of NTC issuing a cease and desist order against ABS-CBN broke. The broadcast giant's franchise expired on Monday, March 4. (READ: DOJ: Order vs ABS-CBN 'immediately executory')

On March 4, the upper chamber passed Senate Resolution 40, expressing its sense that ABS-CBN should continue operations beyond franchise expiry. This move was upon the recommendation of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who said that a resolution would suffice to give NTC a legal cover to issue a temporary permit.

On March 11, the Senate handed a copy of the resolution to NTC Deputy Commissioner Ed Cabarrios. Speaking to reporters, Cabarrios said that NTC will issue a provisional permit. "Unless, may (there is) restraint from the courts," he said, answering the question on whether nothing can prevent the agency from issuing the permit.

Tuesday's move came as a shock to senators, who expected that the agency would furnish ABS-CBN the temporary permit to operate, after the Senate proceedings. The Senate was still waiting for the House of Representatives to approve ABS-CBN's franchise before the upper chamber can act on it.

The senators said on Tuesday that NTC's move was a grave abuse of discretion; was "highly irregular and improper;" and against their commitment to the chamber.

Here are the statements of the senators:

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri

I find it irregular or improper at this time of this international pandemic that we will cut off with a major television station that provides info dissemination.

What I find highly irregular that I know for a fact that many broadcast corporations that are operating on provisional authority, meaning wala pang franchise. Marami sa probinsya. A lot of radio stations, wala pang national or local franchise (which means that they don't have franchise. There are a lot in the provinces. A lot of radio stations, don't have a national or local franchise).

Maybe ABS-CBN seek redress to Supreme Court because they could cite many instances where the NTC gave provisional authority for those who are still applying, who haven't gotten their franchises. I believe they can ask for a temporary restraining order.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon

I enjoin in condemning this act of NTC as being contrary to law and in grave abuse of discretion. Firstly, there's enough precedence. It's the Supreme Court itseld that said that a provisional authority can be authorized if there renewal of franchise is pending. The Secretary of Justice himself said with the concurrence of the two houses with the matter pending, the NTC can issue the provisional authority.

I would join the opinion of the majority leader that indeed the remedy is only in the Supreme Court. There is no harm to allow ABS-CBN to continue. And it is even to the benefit of the public that info flows in these very diffucult times.

Senator Francis Pangilinan

This is plain and simple – grave abuse of governmental power. It is abusive, abitrary, no less than the NTC released, issued, hundreds of provisional authorities to hundreds of broacasting companies aroudn the country who have franchise, but whose franchises are pending approval. So why single out ABS-CBN?

Ito ang nakakalungkot. Over 10,000 employees of ABS-CBN are now in limbo because of this cease and desist order. Samantala, ang mga POGO operations pinabubukas. Inuuna pa ang Chinese nationals at negosyo nila at 'yung mahigit sampung libo nating mga kababayan, gusto nila mawalan trabaho. Apart from that of course, yung malayang pamamahayag. Information is critial during this pandemic.

(This is what's saddening. Over 10,000 employees of ABS-CBN are now in limbo because of this cease and desist order. Meanwhile, they allowed POGO operations to resume. They placed priority to Chinese nationals and their businesses over our more than 10,000 citizens, whose jobs will be lost. Apart from that, of course, is the issue on press freedom.)

Senator Sonny Angara

[It] seems ill-advised and heavy-handed from the standpoint of law and public policy. Both houses of Congress and the Department of Justice issued opinions/resolutions in favor of the issuance of a provisional authority for the media entity to operate, pending congressional deliberations on its legislative franchise renewal.

Secondly, there is the risk of many people losing their jobs or livelihoods in what is a very difficult economic environment. Thirdly, people will also lose a valuable source of reliable information in the middle of a pandemic when our people need reliable information more than ever.

Senator Grace Poe

The ball is in the court of Congress if they pass the franchise. I don't think there's a problem with us solving this issue.

ABS and other networks continue to pay their talents even if they’re not working. With this development and with no security of their revenue stream in the coming months, I'm afraid many will lose that benefit of having some sort of support while there’s no work. I think this is another angle that needs to be looked at by the NTC.

Ngayon pa sila magpapasara kung kailan ang daming walang trabaho. At least ito, naaalagaan at di dapat sa gobyerno umasa. (They would really have to shutdown ABS-CBN when there are Filipinos who have lost their jobs. At least ABS-CBN took care of their employees and did not ask for government aid.)

Senator Risa Hontiveros

We need more – not fewer – voices of a free and responsible media and press. Meron na nga pong panahon ng pandemic at kailangan ng ating mga kababayan ng kumpleto at tamang impormasyon tungkol sa paano tayo maakahon sa krisis na to. (We are at a time of a pandemic and we need our citizens to have complete and right information so that we can get over this crisis.)

Senator Joel Villanueva

We were expecting the NTC to grant ABS-CBN a provisional authority to continue its operations because it has done so previously. The current resolution of NTC is disappointing. To issue this in times of COVID-19 when people need jobs to survive the pandemic is just heartless considering congressional hearings have shown that the station has not violated any law to justify none extension of franchise.

I also re-echo the statement of DOJ that on the basis of grounds of equity, the station should be allowed to operate while waiting for the renewal of its franchise. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives agree on this. Such move of the NTC is unfair.

Senator Bong Revilla

The cease and desist order issued by NTC on ABSCBN is sadly not in accordance with its commitment to Congress and the Senate.

Ito ang gusto nating iwasan noon nang sabihin nating kailangan aksyunan agad ng Kongreso ang prangkisa. Naiwasan na sana humantong sa ganito. Sinabi ng NTC na sapat na ang resolution ng Senado at sulat ng Kamara upang mabibigyan ang ABSCBN ng provisional authority, then this happens. Nakakalungkot para sa mga libo-libong manggagawa ng ABSCBN na mawawalan ng trabaho. ABSCBN has legal remedies that they can pursue as they should.

(This is what we want to avoid when we said that Congress should act on the franchise. Had Congress acted, then we have prevented this situation. The NTC said that the Senate resolution is already suffice, then this happens. This is saddening for thousands of ABS-CBN workers who will lose their jobs.)

Senator Bong Go

The matter of allowing ABS-CBN to operate after the National Telecommunications Commission issued a cease-and-desist Order against the media corporation is now with the House of Representatives. There is a bill seeking to renew the franchise of the media corporation now pending before the lower House.

Now that session has already resumed, I am urging the House of Representatives to act on this matter with due haste. Upon reaching the Senate and once we have had a chance to conduct our own hearings on the matter, that is when I will decide and vote according to my conscience and the interest of the Filipino people.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III

ABS franchise, bring it to the Senate. We will approve it!

Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto

The NTC should not have used its powers as some sort of a remote control device, which by a mere push of a button shuts off a TV. It should have obeyed the formal advice of the Department of Justice, the House of Representatives, and the Senate to allow the continued operation of ABS-CBN while the bill extending its franchise is being finalized.

The way forward is for NTC to allow ABS-CBN to resume operations, for the House to immediately pass the bill, and for the Senate to ratify the bill once it receives it from the House.

ABS-CBN, like all corporations which operate under the grace of government, may have committed a few oversights in its operations. But these were trespasses – none of which so grievous that it would merit the corporate version of the death penalty. The remedy for government was to slap it with a fine – a hefty one that hurts the pocket – but not to impose the business equivalent of capital punishment.

Senator Richard Gordon

The government’s order is a transgression of freedom of speech and expression. To begin with, it infringes on the authority of the legislative branch of government, which is already in the process of deliberating the franchise. It also comes at a time when it has never been more important for government and media to be allies, not adversaries. During this pandemic that continues to threaten our country, our people, and our economy, we need to be sending out vital lifesaving information to our people on a daily basis, something that mass media is in the best position to help us with.

Senator Nancy Binay

In these trying times, information saves lives. Tapos ngayon 'nyo pa tatanggalin ang 11,000 Pilipinong katuwang sa paghahatid ng impormasyon? (Then you will have 11,000 Filipinos removed from work, those who help spread information?)

You don't kill the people and the platform delivering valuable lifesaving information.

Senator Leila de Lima

Nananawagan ako sa ating mga kapwa mambabatas. Huwag nilang hayaang maging kasangkapan muli ng isang diktador. Hindi lang ito tungkol sa pagpapatigil sa operasyon ng ABS-CBN. Tungkol ito sa pagpigil sa malayang pamamahayag, pagsiil sa ating mga karapatan, at pagkitil sa ating demokrasya.

(I am calling on my fellow lawmakers. Don't let yourselves work for a dictator. This is not only about the shutdown of ABS-CBN operations. This is about putting a stop to the freedom of the press, the oppression of our rights, and the death of democracy.) – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

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

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