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DOJ sides with ABS-CBN: 50-year-limit covers franchise, not public utility

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The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday agreed with the position of ABS-CBN that the 50-year limit that the Constitution provides pertains to the franchise granted to a public utility and not to the operation of the entity itself.

During the continuation of the House joint panel hearing on the ABS-CBN franchise issue, Justice Assistant Secretary Nicholas Ty was asked whether or not the ABS-CBN application violated the 50-year constitutional limitation for a franchise.

Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta, in opposing the grant of another franchise to the network, has alleged that ABS-CBN had been using the same airwaves since 1957 even as the Constitution provided that Congress could grant a franchise of up to only 50 years.

Even if ABS-CBN's operations were shut down during the Marcos regime for 13 years, according to Marcoleta, the network still has been operating for 50 years.

But Ty said that the 50-year limitation under the Constitution pertained to the franchise itself and not to the grantee.

"Ang limitasyon na nilalagay ng Constitution ay 50 years at ang Congress ay may kapangyarihan [na magbigay ng prangkisa] ng kahit anong term as long as hindi ito lumagpas ng 50 years," Ty said.

"Had the interpretation been that the 50-year limit applies to the grantee, it would be fair to suppose that those entities [which already operate for more than 50 years] would have long shut down," he added.

The DOJ opinion is consistent with the position of Atty. Mario Bautista, counsel for ABS-CBN, who argued that the 50-year limit "applies to each franchise" and "does not prohibit the grant of a new franchise to the same entity."

Bautista said that if Congress would conclude that the operation of public utilities should be for 50 years, then all corporations which have been in existence for more than 50 years are also violative of the Constitution and thus should all be closed down.

These include Meralco, PLDT, Philippine Airlines, and many other television and radio stations, he said.

"Kaya napakabigat yung bintang na kailangan 50 years lang ang public utility. Sa totoo lang sa Securities and Exchange Commission, any corporation can exist for as long as it is renewing its articles of incorporation and filing for an extension," Bautista said.

"Ang nakalagay sa ating Saligang Batas, no franchise, no certificate, no authority shall be in excess of 50 years. Kung gusto ng constitutional framers na i-limit lang yan sa 50 years, sasabihin nila categorically na a public utility company cannot operate for more than 50 years," he added.

Apart from the supposed violation on the 50-year limit on franchises in the Constitution, other constitutional issues that the House joint panel was tackling related to the ABS-CBN franchise are the citizenship of ABS-CBN chairman emeritus Gabby Lopez III, network's issuance of Philippine Depositary Receipts to foreigners, and the constitutionality of the return of ABS-CBN to Lopez family in 1986. -NB, GMA News

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