By Macon Araneta

ABS-CBN President and CEO Carlo Katigbak apologized to President Rodrigo Duterte for failing to air his political advertisements for the 2016 election campaign amid the impending expiration of the network’s franchise on March 21.

“We are sorry if we offended the President,” said Katigbak during the Senate public services committee hearing  chaired by Sen. Grace Poe on ABS-CBN franchise. 

Instead of airing the President’s political advertisements which were  already paid, Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go said ABS-CBN  aired anti-Duterte political ads. He bewailed the political ads, played inside the Session Hall during the hearing, as  a “black propaganda to besmirch Duterte’s reputation and destroy his presidential bid.”

Go said the negative political ad, paid by former Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, showing children reacting to some of Duterte’s controversial remarks and expletives, including his cursing of Pope Francis and his comment about the rape-slay of an Australian missionary, was instead aired by ABS-CBN. 

“How come this was a political ad? What was your priority — black propaganda?” Go asked ABS-CBN officials at the hearing.

“This is very troublesome,” also said Go, a long-time ally of Duterte before he ran and won as senator.  He said media networks are supposed to be impartial.

“If you did this to a candidate for president, how much more to an ordinary Filipino?” asked Go.

“The President was hurt binaboy siya. Hindi vindictive ang pangulobut someone clearly went overboard with the airing of this black propaganda,” said Go, adding that it is just right for the President to fight the elite and oligarch ruling the country. But he would appeal to the President to reconsider his stand on the ABS-CBN franchise.

Further testifying in the hearing, Katigbak also belied claims that the network had pushed its own political agenda in the last presidential elections.

“That was not the intention of the network, we felt that we were just abiding by the laws and regulations that surround the airing of political ads,” said Katigbak.

Katigbak told the Senate panel that the network aired all of the over PHP100 million worth of national ads paid by Duterte at the time.

However,  he said some of Duterte’s local ads could not be accommodated since local broadcast stations are only allowed two minute ads per hour. He also noted  that many  spots were already ordered on May 3, 2016, four days ahead of the last day of the campaign period.

“There had been many previous telecast orders that came in ahead of the President’s telecast order,” he said.

Katigbak said Duterte placed an order of PHP65 million worth of local ads. Out of this, ABS-CBN failed to air about PHP7 million. Around  PHP4 million of the unaired ads were initially refunded and accepted by the Duterte campaign.

He also told the Senate panel the President placed an order for PHP117 million worth of national ads, of which they aired all PHP117 million. 

“In other words, 100 percent of the President’s ads which were ordered for national airing were accommodated, broadcasted and aired by the station. We had problems in the local ads,” said Katigbak.

He also admitted ABS-CBN was “delayed” in refunding the remaining PHP2.6 million and the amount “was no longer accepted by the President.  He said ABS-CBN in 2019 implemented a policy of returning checks to advertisers if their spot is not aired within seven days.

“On this issue, we acknowledge our shortcoming in our failure to release the  refund in a timely manner,” emphasized the ABS-CBN official.

During his public rants, Duterte had repeatedly accused ABS-CBN of swindling him after it failed to air his political ads in the 2016 campaign elections. He had threatened to block the renewal of  ABS-CBN’s 25-year franchise.

Sen. Lito Lapid, who rarely showed up in Senate hearings or gave comments on various issues confronting the country, was the only senator who asked ABS-CBN executives if they’re having  hard time on the renewal of their franchise because the President was mad at them. He pressed them why.

Katigbak responded saying they have no categorical knowledge but heard his public displeasure towards ABS-CBN.

“Maybe  a lot of you are wondering why I suddenly showed up here and I will not lie about it, ABS-CBN is close to my heart because out of all the senators here, I’m the only one who became an artist of ABS-CBN; that’s why it doesn’t mean that my presence would mean that I’m already biased but that’s automatic. I’m just being honest,” related Lapid who plays the role of “Pinuno” in the popular ABS-CBN primetime show, “Ang Probinsyano” until his character died shortly before the May 2019 election.

Sen. Manny Pacquiao, co-author of a bill renewing ABS-CBN’s franchise, said it would be a big loss for the Filipino people if the network’s franchise expires.

If ABS-CBN committed violations, Pacquiao said, a case should be filed against the TV network but not closing it down.

But Simplicio Cabantac Jr, head of the BIR Large Tax Payers Audit Division 3 and Supervising Commissioner Ephyro Luis Amatong of the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) said ABS-CBN has not committed any violation.

Cabantac said ABS-CBN  has been regularly filing and paying their taxes for the past number of years.  It paid PHP14,398,464,316.66 in taxes from 2016 to 2019 except for income taxes last year which will be submitted in April. 

From 2009 to 2018, ABS-CBN also paid a total of PHP8.859 billion in withholding taxes.

Amatong also said the SEC is  “not aware of any violation or any on-going complaint or investigation involving ABS-CBN.”

ABS-CBN asserted that the company did not violate any of the provisions of its franchise, and emphasized that it operated based on its mission to be in the service of the Filipino people. 

“We would also like to state that we have not broken the law or violated any of the provisions of our franchise. We thank the Senate for inviting us today, and we welcome the opportunity to shed light on the issues that have been raised against us,” he told senators. 

“In the last 25 years of our existing franchise, we believe we have delivered a service that is meaningful and valuable to the Filipino people,” Katigbak said.

“While our commitment to serve is genuine, we also acknowledge that we are not a perfect organization. Where we have shortcomings, we acknowledge them, and work to correct them. May pagkukulang man kami, mas matimbang ang aming adhikain namakapaglingkod,” he added.

“Our desire to serve is greater than our shortcomings,” he further stated.

National Telecommunications (NTC) commissioner Atty. Gamaliel Cordoba said this was the first time when they need to seek the opinion of the Department of Justice (DoJ) for the renewal of a franchise. 

While they proceeded in the renewal of franchises in the past, Cordoba admitted that in the case of ABS-CBN, they found it prudent to ask the DoJ for guidance due to an objection.

Solicitor Gen. Jose Calida, who did not attend the Senate hearing, invoking the sub judice law, filed a quo warranto, contesting the franchise renewal.

Interviewed after the hearing, Sen. Franklin Drilon said  a lot of issues were clarified, especially the opinion of the justice secretary who admits a gap in the law on franchise.

“While it is pending here in Congress, he cites the rule of equity, meaning that ABS-CBN should be allowed to continue broadcasting until the franchise is approved or rejected.”

He said that it is best the Joint resolution he filed to extend the ABS-CBN franchise until December 2022, be approved with instructions to the NTC  to issue a provisional authority.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto questioned why would a death penalty be imposed on ABS-CBN when it has no penalty from the NTC due to the absence of any violation.

When Recto was told by Cordoba that no violation was committed by ABS-CBN, Recto commented, “There is none. And we are here talking of the possibility of closing the station. (NTC is) the regulator and (they) are not complaining of any penalty.  And here we are talking of the possibility of closing ABS-CBN. In effect, parangcapital punishment. Papatayin natin. Death penalty. Wala naman palangpenalty (saNTC). Bakit natin isasarakung wala naman palang penalty sa inyo? Commensurate ba?”

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the franchise of ABS-CBN will expire on May 4 and not on March 30.

“Based on the records in our possession, the following facts are undisputed. Number one, in the case of ABS-CBN, its franchise covered by Republic Act No. 7966 enacted on 30 March 1995, provides for a term of 25 years from the effectivity of the franchise,” Guevarra.

He noted that Section 15 of the said Act provides that the franchise becomes effective 15 days from date of publication in at least two newspapers of general circulation.