A senior official of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) on Thursday said the agency granted the television frequencies formerly held by ABS-CBN Corp. to allies of President Rodrigo Duterte because they had been left unused for over a year.
“It’s been more than 1 year already since these spectrums remain unused, unutilized and unassigned so the Commission en banc decided to assign so that it can be used for public good and public convenience,” NTC Deputy Commissioner Edgardo Cabarrios said in an interview with ANC.
Channel 2 and 16, which were formerly assigned to ABS-CBN, were granted to a firm owned by former senator Manny Villar, the billionaire and one of the biggest supporters of President Duterte.
The NTC also provided Channel 43, which used to air ABS-CBN TV Plus programs, to Swara Sug Media Corp., operating as Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), of Pastor Apollo Quiboloy – Duterte’s spiritual adviser.
Further, Channel 23, which used to air ABS-CBN’s sports and action channel, was assigned to Aliw Broadcasting Corp., established in 1991 and owned by ALC Group of Companies founded by the late ambassador Antonio Cabangon Chua.
Cabarrios said leaving the frequencies idle was “disadvantageous to the public.” He also said that waiting for the next administration to be installed before assigning the frequencies would mean they would be idle for more than 2 years.
Even as Cabarrios fended off criticism that it was a “midnight deal” with the Duterte administration ending in June, one of the lawmakers who was instrumental in denying the franchise of ABS-CBN raised concern over the NTC’s move.
House Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta raised concern over the NTC move to give the analog and digital broadcast frequencies previously held by ABS-CBN to Villar-owned Advanced Media Broadcasting System, Inc.
In a statement, Marcoleta pointed out the supposed lack of transparency by the NTC, saying that this could still be perceived by some as a “midnight deal.”
“While I view this development with qualified optimism, we cannot ignore the fact that there appears less or even lack of transparency in the grant of frequencies by the NTC. That being so, the public or otherwise interested entities might view this arrangement as a midnight deal, a situation that we need to avoid,” Marcoleta said.
Meanwhile, a Justice official said the department did not expect the legal opinion sought by the NTC from them would be used to justify the award of the frequencies previously owned by ABS-CBN.
In a television interview over TV5 “The Big Story,” Chief State Counsel George Ortha II said the NTC sought the Department of Justice legal opinion last November.
“Essentially the request of NTC revolves on two issues. One, is whether it can issue certificates of public convenience and necessity or provisional authorities; the second one is the assignment of such frequencies,” Ortha stressed.
The NTC apparently did not refer to any company or franchise in their request for legal opinion.
A think-tank earlier noted that under subsection 6.4 of Republic Act No. 9006 or the Fair Elections Act, “No franchise or permit to operate
a radio or television station shall be granted or issued, suspended or canceled during the election period.”
The NTC orders assigning frequencies used by ABS-CBN were dated Jan. 5 (Wednesday) and Jan. 6 (Thursday), a few days before this year’s
election period opened on Jan. 9 (Monday).
Villar’s son, Mark, served in the Cabinet as Public Works Secretary, and is being supported by the administration party PDP-Laban (Cusi
wing) in the May 9 polls.
Villar’s daughter, Las Piñas Rep. Camille Villar, voted in 2020 against granting ABS-CBN a new franchise.
Marcoleta, a senatorial aspirant being endorsed by the BBM-Sara UniTeam, said it cannot be discounted that people would think there is
a conflict of interest in this issue.
“Others might view it as a trade-off, or a midnight deal, considering that the grant of frequencies was done just days before the start of the election period. Still others might speculate that the said arrangement would have the effect of relieving ABS-CBN of its sins and multiple violations that the people were all made aware of in an open public hearing,” the lawmaker said.
Marcoleta also said the grant of provisional authority to test broadcast Channel 2 may be used only for political purposes that would
favor select candidates.
“This is because the said frequency will be repurposed after the analog shut off (ASO) on December 31, 2023 and shall be returned to NTC for other use. This means that this channel, or any part of its spectrum, cannot migrate into digital frequency-rendering the test broadcast is a doubtful exercise except for political motive,” he said.
“If Channel 2 is repurposed as a telco frequency, it can no longer be re-assigned to AMBS because the latter is a broadcast company and will not be allowed to use a telco frequency. This is the prohibition against super franchises that cover two or more industries,” Marcoleta added.
Ortha added: “It is purely a legal question. There was no particular person or entity mentioned in the request for opinion. In fact, the DOJ is not aware of how (sic) there were available frequencies, how it came about.”
“We don’t know whose entity, franchise that expired and we do not know also to whom these available frequencies will be assigned to,” the DOJ
According to him, the two issues raised by the NTC in their legal opinion were clearly within the NTC’s power “except that they have a memorandum circular issued sometime in 2014 that within Mega Manila they will not be issuing any more authority for those who apply for the digital terrestrial TV.”
“So they wanted to clarify if, despite that circular, they can still allocate available frequencies,” Ortha pointed out.