ABS-CBN Corp. chairman emeritus Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III found himself in the hot seat Wednesday as lawmakers took turns questioning him over his citizenship, one of the major issues hounding the application for renewal of franchise to operate of the country’s largest media conglomerate.
During Wednesday's hearing conducted by the House of Representatives' Committees on Legislative Franchises and on Good Government and Public Accountability, lawmakers raised tough questions about his citizenship amid allegations his previous leadership of ABS-CBN and ownership of company shares violated the Constitution and terms of the network’s previous franchise.
The 68-year-old Lopez, through his counsel Mario Bautista, admitted he has dual citizenship status—as a Filipino citizen born to Filipino parents and as American citizen by virtue of his being born in the United States. He is also a holder of both Philippine and US passports.
The admission led lawmakers to question whether a dual citizen like Lopez could own a mass media company in light of strict constitutional provision on 100 percent control and ownership of mass media by Filipinos.
Article XVI, Section 11 of the 1987 Constitution provides that “the ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations, cooperatives or associations, wholly-owned and managed by such citizens.”
“Undeniably, Gabby Lopez is a natural-born [Filipino] citizen, but he is also an American citizen by virtue of ju soli applied in the American law. Ang tanong po is whether a dual citizen can own a mass media company,” Ako Bicol Rep. Alfredo Garbin said.
Jus soli is a principle of nationality law by which citizenship of a person is determined by the place where he was born.
Anakalusugan Rep. Michael Defensor was even more direct, saying that Lopez’s dual citizenship casts doubt on his true faith and allegiance to the Philippines, making him disqualified from owning or having control of a mass media company.
Defensor said those who handle and acquire mass media in the Philippines must be required to have “full Filipino citizenship,” the same way concerned barangay officials are required under the Local Government Code to renounce their foreign citizenship before assuming public office.
“If we legislators require barangay captain or councilor to be a Filipino or whose citizenship should be Filipino, what more for a mass media ” he pointed out.
Defensor also insisted that Lopez could have sworn allegiance to the US when he acquired his American passport in 1996.
Meanwhile, one of ABS-CBN’s staunchest critics, House Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta, insinuated that Lopez is more of an American citizen than a Filipino citizen, as he presented to the panel an “alien fingerprint card” that he claimed the ABS-CBN chief submitted to American authorities in one of his travels to the US.
Given Lopez’s citizenship status, Marcoleta said this contemplates a situation where a Filipino citizen mentioned in Article XVI, Section 11 of the 1987 Constitution should also be a citizen of another country.
“We will have a problem processing that particular issue How can we defend his being an American citizen within the meaning of that constitutional provision?” Marcoleta said, referring to Lopez.
For his part, Senior Deputy Majority Leader Jesus Crispin Remulla noted that Lopez appears to be “half-Filipino and half-American.” Lopez, whose citizenship has been questioned by those to oppose the grant of franchise renewal to the network, told lawmakers that he is a Filipino citizen and never renounced his Philippine citizenship.
He testified during the Wednesday's hearing conducted by the joint panel headed by Reps. Franz Alvarez of Palawan and Jonathan Sy-Alvarado of Bulacan to respond to the allegation that he is an American citizen.
Lopez admitted before legislators that he travelled using an American passport before 2001, when he applied for recognition of Philippine citizenship; and that he even voted during the 2016 US elections. “But these did not mean I renounced my Philippine citizenship,” he said.
Lopez, whose parents were both Filipino citizens, was born in 1952 in the United States, thus under Philippine and American laws, he is a Filipino and American citizen at the same time.
Under the US Constitution, anybody who was born in the US is considered a citizen, while under the 1935 Philippine Constitution, anybody whose parents are both Filipinos at the time of birth is considered Filipino.
Lopez said he applied for recognition of Philippine citizenship in 2001 to have his “being a natural-born Filipino citizen reognized.”
“My understanding from my lawyer was that I am a natural-born Filipino citizen because both my parents are Filipino citizens. But because I was not born in the Philippines, I did not have a Filipino birth certificate,” he said.
Bautista said that Lopez having an American passport does not mean that he is not a Filipino citizen; even as he maintained that Lopez's request for a recognition of his Philippine citizenship is only "for any legal purpose it may serve."
Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar echoed Bautista's legal opinion.
"When the DOJ granted the citizenship confirmation of Mr. Gabby Lopez, it did so not to perfect his citizenship (status) because his parents are both Philippine citizen. That is why he was a Filipino citizen from birth," she said.
Aglipay-Villar added that Lopez's US passport does not mean that he has renounced his Filipino citizenship and that having no Philippine passport would mean he is not a Filipino.
Bautista also told lawmakers that he believes that Lopez's dual citizenship does not mean he cannot own or manage a mass media company, as per the 1987 Philippine Constitution.