By Deighton Acuin

PHOTO: CNN Philippines

Malacañang said Tuesday that President Rodrigo Duterte called the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate the media broadcasting giant ABS-CBN for graft.

Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque made the statement when asked for the details of unpaid taxes and condoned loans of the network which Duterte brought up during his weekly national address on Monday night.

Duterte said he will block the operations of the network even if the Congress grants it a fresh franchise. This is despite the pronouncement from Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) that ABS-CBN has no unpaid taxes and condoned loans.

“Ni-refer na po ng Presidente ang bagay na ito sa Ombudsman,” Roque said during the briefing. 

“Ombudsman na po ang bahala sa cause of action for violation of our Anti-Graft law,” Roque added.

Back in July 2020, the House Committee on Legislative Franchises rejected ABS-CBN’s application for a franchise to operate for 25 years. It said the broadcast company violated its old franchise with former chairman Eugenio Lopez III having both Filipino and American citizenship, 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.

The House, likewise, said the media giant cannot invoke the press freedom in justifying its fresh application for franchise.

The decision was made even though the BIR, the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) cleared ABS-CBN for violations during the inquiry.

As a result, ABS-CBN laid off workers in the midst of coronavirus pandemic.

The no vote came more than two months after the network’s franchise lapsed on May 4.

The bills seeking franchise renewal for ABS-CBN have been pending since 2014 but the House only decided to start its deliberations on these proposals in March 2020.

Under the Constitution, "no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances."

At least 15 Senators expressed their support for the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, according to Senate President Vicente Sotto III.

Sotto authored a bill which seeks to give ABS-CBN a new franchise for another 25 years.

However, the measures must originate from the House of Representatives before it can be transmitted in the Senate.

In mid-January, Batangas Representative Vilma Santos-Recto filed a new bill to renew the network’s franchise.

House Committee on Legislative Franchise Chairperson Franz Alvarez, however, said the issues of the network’s franchise renewal to operate is best to be addressed in the next Congress.