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Ex-Comelec commish: People’s initiative for ABS-CBN franchise a ‘Herculean’ task

Securing a franchise for ABS-CBN through a people’s initiative is possible but will be a "Herculean" task, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a former Commission on Elections commissioner said.

Lawyer Gregorio Larrazabal, who was a Comelec commissioner when the country staged its first ever automated polls during the 2010 elections, made the observation in line with the ongoing signature drive to grant ABS-CBN a franchise to operate, dubbed PIRMA Kapamilya.

The Initiative and Referendum law allows the people to propose a law provided that at least 10 percent of the total number of the registered voters—of which every legislative district is represented by at least 3% of the registered voters thereof—will sign the petition for the purpose and register the same with the Comelec.

The Comelec will then verify the signatures and if the threshold is met, conduct a national referendum. If the proposed law is approved by a majority of the votes cast as certified by the Comelec, then the measure will take effect 15 days following completion of its publication in the Official Gazette or in a newspaper of general circulation.

“People’s initiative is already challenging under normal conditions. It is a Herculean task, and the pandemic makes it more difficult. It is not only about getting the signatures [needed], but the verification process needed to be done on the signatures,” Larrazabal told GMA News Online in a phone interview.

“The determination of the validity of the signatures will be one of the main points of contention,” Larrazabal added.

Larrazabal cited that under the law, verifying signatures—which is under the mandate of the Comelec—has four stages:

  • verifying that the signature is authentic;
  • determining if the person is a registered voter;
  • determining if the person is aware of what he or she is signing on to; and
  • meeting the threshold set by the law in all of the country’s over 1,000 cities and municipalities and around 238 legislative districts.

“Once the signature is authenticated, is the person who signed it a registered voter? Even if that person read about the petition but is not a registered voter, it becomes meaningless because you have to be registered voter for it to have a legal weight in a people’s initiative,” Larrazabal pointed out.

“There are also those who will sign the document pro forma without knowing what is stated in the document, or those who will sign it only to later claim that they do not know what it is about. That would affect the validity of the signatures. Now, imagine having to gather that [number of authentic signatures] nationwide,” Larrazabal added.

Funding for a referendum

Even in the event that the petition achieves the Herculean effort of gathering the required number of signatures, Larrazabal said, the road does not get easier because the Comelec would need a budget to hold a nationwide referendum for the approval of the people’s initiative bill that will grant ABS-CBN the franchise to operate.

“Comelec might have savings, but the question is, would that be enough to cover the expenses of a national electoral exercise? Where will you get those billions of pesos?” Larrazabal argued.

“Comelec is mandated to provide a budget [for this], and if the Comelec does not have the money, it has to secure funding from Congress,” he added.

It was the House Legislative Franchises panel which rejected the ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal via a 70-11 vote on several grounds, including supposed politicking; the issuance of Philippine Depositary Receipts supposedly favoring foreigners; supposedly inappropriate program content; alleged tax avoidance schemes; and allegedly less than exemplary labor practices.

The rejection came even though the Bureau of Internal Revenue, as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), cleared ABS-CBN Corporation of violations during the same hearing.

As a result of the rejection, ABS-CBN has started laying off workers this month.

Administration support

The ABS-CBN supporters’ push for a people’s initiative for the passage of a national law is not the first time that such a route was taken, but history is not on the side of ABS-CBN.

Attempts to amend the 1987 Constitution via people’s initiative were undertaken in  1994, 1996, 1999 and 2006. The moves gained ground from the House of Representatives and proponents even claimed they were able to gather six million signatures in 2006.

However, these all failed after being either rejected by the Senate or thumbed down by the Supreme Court due to the lack of an enabling law which allows people’s initiative to amend the Constitution.

“Those previous unsuccessful attempts on using a people’s initiative for a national legislation was done by the sitting administration, if not by the individuals associated with that administration. It will be difficult to assume that the outcome will be different this time,” Larrazabal said.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has attacked the network over the matter of his campaign ads in 2016, said in December 2019 that he would see to it that ABS-CBN is out of business by this year and even egged on the network's owners to sell it instead.

Despite Duterte's remarks, including those he made at his fifth State of the Nation Address on Monday, Malacañang insisted that the President is "neutral" on the matter.

The former Comelec official, however, clarified that the tough circumstances he enumerated are not meant to discourage those who are determined to push for the people’s initiative for the granting of ABS-CBN’s franchise to operate.

“I am not telling people to do it or not. I was just explaining what are the challenges you have to face. Of course, you have to be aware of these challenges,” Larrazabal said.

“There are some who say, oh, it is easy, but there are nuances on the ground, and they might not be aware of these. You have to be aware of these potential challenges so you can make a wise decision moving forward,” he added. — BM, GMA News