Seares: How much time do ABS-CBN, Congress, Supreme Court have?

Pachico A. Seares

AMONG the murky points in the current controversy over the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise, the more troublesome and annoying is this: When does the franchise actually expire?

The initial widespread understanding is that the franchise, approved on March 30, 1995, will expire on March 30 this year. (A Cebu lawyer wondered if the expiry date shouldn’t be May 3, 2020, anniversary date of the effectivity of the law, instead of the date of its approval. That would be a bonus of 33 days or so. But that theory hasn’t taken off.)

Another interpretation has gained more traction because it came from congressional leaders Senate President Tito Sotto and House Speaker Allan Peter Cayetano.

Until end of 18th Congress

Sotto and Cayetano said the franchise will expire only until the end of 18th Congress since the 11 bills for the renewal have already been filed in the House, where private bills and franchise bills originate.

But what is the basis for the theory that ABS-CBN may still operate after this March?

Isabela Rep. Antonio Albano, vice chairman of the House panel on legislative franchises, cited “rule of thumb” and an unspecified briefing purportedly made to the committee. Sotto cited practice in other franchise cases. Sen. Bong Go weighed in with his idea that ABS-CBN can opt for a 45-day extension through a temporary permit from NTC.

No specific law

Here’s the thing: They don’t name a specific law supporting the theory of life beyond death of a franchise. They point to the authority of the NTC to grant an extension through a temporary permit.

But would the NTC, an agency under the office of the president, do that without a statutory order from Congress? Would the commission not be strict about this particular franchise which President Duterte repeatedly said he didn’t want renewed? NTC is likely to demand legal authority from Congress.

Or Sotto and Cayetano might say they were wrong or they could be blocked by lawsuit or they’d change their mind. They are presidential allies.

Suing for time

That may be the reason Sen. Franklin Drilon in the Senate and Cebu’s Rep. Raul del Mar in the House filed separate resolutions for the extension of ABS-CBN’s franchise until the end of the 18th Congress in 2022. The resolutions both seek to give ABS-CBN a fair hearing, without committing to approve or reject the renewal.

That would supply Congress more time to act on the pending franchise bills although it wouldn’t take the network out of the woods yet.

Here’s why. Congress may decide not to renew the franchise and it may do that even before its term ends. Or the Supreme Court (SC) may rule that ABS-CBN violations deserve the stripping of its franchise. And that also can happen even if the period of extension has not yet been consumed.

Uncertainties

If ABS-CBN’s franchise wouldn’t be extended by grace of NTC or authority of Congress, the SC petition would be rendered academic by the end of this March. Court watchers say the high court may not have to decide the case by simply not ruling on the quo warranto petition before Congress renders it moot by dumping the proposal.

There are uncertainties on which light will be shed only as the controversy unravels. What is clear is that the multifaceted dispute has raised side issues, including alleged malpractices of the network, which could bury the real intent of those who set off the machinery of regulation: to avenge a past personal and political offense.