House mocks ABS-CBN franchise application

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MAYBE it’s just me, but the February 26 letter of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Legislative Franchises to the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) sounds either like it’s mocking ABS-CBN Corp.’s application for a franchise or sending the message to the firm to give up and just prepare to close down.

First, the letter signed by its chairman, Palawan Rep. Franz Alvarez and concurred in by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano took a swipe at Sen. Mary Grace Poe’s hearing last week, telling the NTC that the House “has the exclusive jurisdiction and authority to act on franchise applications.”

Second, the letter says, “We enjoin you to grant ABS-CBN Corp. a provisional authority to operate effective May 4, 2020 until such time that the House has made a decision on its application.”

While that may sound as if it is giving ABS-CBN a lease on life, the House Committee on Legislative Franchises has absolutely no authority to “enjoin” the NTC to do so.

Committees of the House are merely representatives of the entire chamber, created to facilitate the drafting of bills, as it is obviously physically impossible to have all its 306 members meet to study and deliberate each bill. Committees don’t even have the authority to pass a bill: their drafts are presented to the entire House in plenary (“in full” attendance) for approval.

In the second place, the House and the Senate — the legislative branch of a republican government — do not have the authority to enjoin the NTC, which is part of the executive branch. That is why, Senator Poe, even in her service to ABS-CBN, proposed only a joint resolution of the two chambers to ask NTC to grant the firm a provisional authority to operate when its franchise expires on May 4.

In the third place, the Supreme Court 17 years ago (in Associated Communications v[s] National Telecommunications Commission, GR 144109), had categorically and unanimously ruled that there are no such things under the Constitution as NTC-issued provisional authorities to operate. No franchise law passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no authority to operate. Period.

The NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba is a lawyer and knows his law. Do you think he will anger the Supreme Court by defying its clear and categorical decision on franchises?

Poe’s sorry justification is that such provisional permits to operate had been given before. That doesn’t, of course, justify that the law of the land should be ignored in the ABS-CBN case now. Just because a United States citizen is allowed to run for the highest post of the land doesn’t mean that next time such an American will be allowed to do so.

And when will the House committee really start deliberating ABS-CBN’s franchise application? On May 16, really two weeks after its franchise expires. Isn’t that a classic case of mocking a request?

The House in its letter said it “instructed all interested parties to submit their position papers for or against ABS-CBN’s application within a period of 60 days from Feb. 4, 2020. Assuming that this means “working days” it will be only on May16 that the committee can say it has the position papers to deliberate on the franchise application.

More important than these legal issues is the political dynamics that doom ABS-CBN’s application for a franchise to operate a broadcast media. It is indeed astonishing, mysterious or so colossally stupid that the Lopezes were not able to get a franchise — several bills were filed for this in 2004 — during their fellow Yellow cultist President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s administration. And they hope to get it under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has his own personal odium against ABS-CBN?

Very few in the House of Representatives are willing to support the granting of the franchise simply for practical purposes. They’re not getting anything from the Lopezes anyway — as it’s way too expensive for this oligarch to pay off even just half of 306 congressmen to give it the franchise.

They also suspect that a few of their colleagues, like the communist party-lists and Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo’s representatives, as well as several senators — those campaigning for the grant of a franchise — have already received tens of millions of pesos from the oligarch. In their minds therefore: “Why should they help those who made money?”

Furthermore, none of the 306 congressmen can be singled out by ABS-CBN or its fans or the public for not granting the franchise. They’ll just keep quiet, lie low and watch what they see as the arrogant Lopez oligarch’s battleship sink.

On the part of Cayetano and the franchise committee head Alvarez, they’ve “done their job” with the letter to the NTC I discussed above.

The committee members — who number 46, with only four from the opposition — won’t stick their necks out and raise Duterte’s ire. And if the House doesn’t move to pass a franchise bill, all the noise of senators like Poe and Senate President Vicente Sotto 3rd — whom the congressmen suspect are earning a lot from this issue — doesn’t matter at all.

Congress adjourns on March 14 and resumes May 3, with ABS-CBN’s franchise expiring the next day. The only way for ABS-CBN to get a franchise is for Duterte to make a 360-degree turn now and ask the House to expedite it.

But in that situation, he’ll be suspected that this issue was merely a project to shake down ABS-CBN. Just as bad would be the view — which would likely be held by many — that Duterte lost in his epic battle with an oligarch.

But, in the first place, do you think Duterte has demonstrated a character of buckling under pressure and changing his mind?

From another angle, if the Lopezes manage to get their franchise, they’ll most probably lie low in attacking Duterte for the next two years. But do you think Duterte is so naïve that he is not aware that come 2022, ABS-CBN will fiercely attack his candidate and support Poe or another politician that helped it in its crisis for the presidency, who would strive to throw him in jail as the Yellows did former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo?

With these realities, it is no wonder that ABS-CBN’s bank creditors — who’ve lent it some P30 billion — have reportedly started to talk among themselves on how to save at least some of their exposure to the corporation.

One issue they are feverishly researching on recently, I am told, involves ABS-CBN’s liabilities “cross default” provisions, or if the Lopezes or their other firms had committed to pay for the broadcast firms’ liabilities if it goes under.

Banking sources claim that such loan conditions were imposed on ABS-CBN’s loans given the Lopez clan’s history of financial crises even if they had the strongest of links to the several administrations.

A few bankers are claiming, though, that a financial meltdown of the Lopez conglomerate would have some impact on the country’s investment grade ranking. However, sa trusted Duterte official is said to have remarked of the financial problems that will hit the Lopezes hard soon: “That is not our problem, but obviously theirs.”

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