By Macon Ramos-Araneta

With 70 “Yes” votes and 11 “No” votes, the  House of Representatives on July 10 killed media giant ABS-CBN Corp.’s bid for a 25-year franchise renewal after 13 hearings.

After counting the votes of House members who were physically present and those on Zoom,  Palawan First District Rep. Franz Alvarez, chairperson of the House committee on Legislative Franchises, declared 70 lawmakers voted to adopt the technical working group’s (TWG) report, Resolution Denying the Franchise Application of ABS-CBN Corporation to Construct, Install, Establish, Operate and Maintain Radio and Broadcasting Stations in the Philippines.

He also announced that two House members inhibited from voting while one abstained.

Eighty-five members registered their votes — 46 of which are regular members and 39 ex-officio members of the Legislative Franchises committee. Because of this, 44 Yes votes were needed to reject ABS-CBN’s bid for a 25-year franchise.

The 11 lawmakers who voted for ABS-CBN  franchise renewal are: Congresswomen Sol Aragones, Vilma Santos, Lianda Bolilia, Stella Quimbo and Congressmen Toff De Venecia, Caloi Zarate, Gab Bordado, Ping Tejada, Mujiv Hataman and Edward Maceda.

“By no means can this franchise application be related to press freedom. It is what it is — a denial of a privilege granted by the State because the applicant was seen as un-deserving of the grant of a legislative franchise,”  according to the findings of a  technical working group (TWG) that  prepared the resolution against ABS-CBN overnight.

Based on the TWG report, ABS-CBN violated its old franchise, described by the panel as a privilege because: its former Chairman Eugenio Lopez III was both a Filipino and American citizen, the issuance of Philippine Depositary Receipts supposedly favoring foreigners, inappropriate program content, meddling in politics, tax avoidance schemes, less than exemplary labor practices, among others.

“It is what it is — a denial of a privilege granted by the State because the applicant was seen as undeserving of the grant of a legislative franchise. By no means can this franchise application be related to press freedom. If it were so, then all applicants for legislative franchises covering mass media could simply claim such freedom and force the hand of this Committee each time,” the Committee Resolution read.

The TWG members include Deputy Speaker Pablo John Garcia, Representatives XJ Romualdo of Camiguin and Stella Quimbo of Marikina. Among them, only Quimbo dissented.

House Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, an ex-officio member of the Committee,  said ABS-CBN and lawmakers who favored the franchise can resort to including the re-filing of a new bill which shall undergo the same process.

Zarate also said, “The motion for reconsideration will be heard in the same meeting if it’s raised in the same meeting or if it is raised on the same day on writing, it should be calendared by the committee for a hearing.”

ABS-CBN said the rejection of a new franchise puts in jeopardy the jobs of more than 11,000 workers under the broadcast outfit’s  group of companies, particularly its broadcast business’ programs that enjoyed a massive reach of more than 80 million Filipinos globally.

“This  episode in the history of our nation is reminiscent of the dark pages in the history of Philippine press in 1972,” said Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon.

“Democracy thrives when there is free press and when journalists can exercise complete freedom to do their mandate of reporting facts without fear,” said Drilon.

After monitoring the exhaustive proceedings in the House of Representatives, Drilon said he is more convinced that ABS-CBN stepped on some powerful political toes.

“The sword of Damocles will continue to hang perilously over other media networks. Both the legislators and the executive can wield the sword at their whim and caprice. This is when democracy starts to weaken.”

ABS-CBN as an institution, he said, can survive this episode but the 11,000 whose livelihood depends on the network are the real casualties of this unfortunate and politically-charged event.

He said this could have been avoided had Congress granted the franchise renewal of the broadcasting network.

“Sad to say, the ABS-CBN will have to wait until 2022 when the new Congress is elected to apply again for the renewal of its franchise.”

According  to the Senate leader, he filed a resolution to extend the ABS-CBN until December of 2022 but  the Senate, unfortunately, can no longer act on it and other bills calling to renew the franchise of ABS-CBN due to Constitutional limitations.

Another member of the Minority Bloc, Akbayan Sen. Risa Hontiveros said, “Because the government allowed politicking in the process of renewing a legislative franchise and succeeded in the shutting down of a media institution, we have effectively begun to ring the death knell on press freedom in the country.”

“While Filipinos are struggling with an unprecedented public health crisis brought by COVID-19, we have limited their access to life-saving information through the closure of a major media network that services at least 69 million Filipinos.”

“We must speak out against this outrageous act of political persecution. We must protect the cause of a free press in this country. We must not be afraid to hold those in power into account.”

“History will be harsh to those who ignored the most basic needs of Filipinos during this pandemic and instead used it to consolidate power for selfish reasons.”