The members of Congress should vote on the ABS-CBN franchise issue according to their conscience, Malacañang said Tuesday as lawmakers wrap up this week their hearings on the bills seeking to grant the broadcasting network a fresh 25-year license to operate.
President Rodrigo Duterte remains "neutral" on the company's bid for a new franchise, his spokesman Harry Roque said in a Palace briefing.
"They asked for forgiveness," Roque said, referring to the apology offered by ABS-CBN President Carlo Katigbak in February over an aired negative political advertisement in 2016 that offended Duterte.
"He is neutral. Vote according to your conscience.”
While he accepted the apology, Duterte had said he was leaving the fate of ABS-CBN's franchise to Congress.
The President had previously threatened to block ABS-CBN's bid for a new franchise.
House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano on Monday said he was also seeking a "conscience vote" among his colleagues.
ABS-CBN has been off the air for more than two months since the National Telecommunications Commission on May 5 shut down its free television and radio services.
The NTC committed in March to lawmakers it would let the network stay on air while Congress deliberated on its new franchise application.
Last week, the NTC also closed down ABS-CBN's digital broadcast in Metro Manila and its sister company's SKYDirect services, following the advice of Solicitor General Jose Calida, who in February sought to reject the network's franchise due to alleged abuses.
The Supreme Court has dumped Calida's petition, saying the issue had become "moot and academic" as ABS-CBN's previous franchise expired May 4.
A joint House panel's scrutiny of the alleged bias in ABS-CBN's news coverage while deciding on the network's application for a new franchise could be regarded as "prior restraint on press freedom," several members of the House of Representatives said on Monday.
Occidental Mindoro Rep. Josephine Ramirez-Sato opted not to interpellate during the hearing, saying the discussions on news bias in connection with the franchise bid were "improper."
Sato then went on to cite several cases in which the courts decided in favor of freedom of expression and free speech.
She also said that those who felt that their rights had been violated should go to court.
"These laws give a highly preferred status to the freedom of speech, expression and freedom of the press. If there are sectors who believe that their rights were violated, they should go to the court and not in this hearing for the renewal of the franchise," Sato said.
Sato likewise reminded her colleagues it was their duty to protect press freedom and freedom of expression at all times.
In his manifestation, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman echoed Sato, reiterating that freedom of the press and of expression was "accorded primacy" among the civil liberties protected by the Bill of Rights.
He added that under its franchise, ABS-CBN was not prohibited from taking sides and, as in other democratic countries, media companies should be allowed to express their views with respect to political events and elections.
"In other countries of the same democratic heritage, media outlets are given that opportunity to express their views or even to have their own biases with respect to political events, as well as during elections," Lagman said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said that, although it was the constitutional duty of Congress to grant franchises, it was not their duty to dictate how journalists should do their reports.
"It is not the duty of Congress to mandate what and how a report should be done by the members of the media. The role of the Congress should be to ensure that journalists and members of the media are free to do their jobs,” Zarate said.
A number of congressmen spent much of the hearing, which lasted around 10 hours, raising personal issues against previous ABS-CBN reports, which they deemed negative to them or to their interests.
Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta complained about the news reports by ABS-CBN reporter Mike Navallo, saying he had authored bills granting franchises of more than 50 years to other companies in the past.
Marcoleta has been critical of ABS-CBN's application for a new franchise, citing, among other issues, the 50-year restriction in the constitution. But the limit applies to a single franchise grant.
Deputy Minority Leader Janette Garin raised the network's coverage of the Dengvaxia vaccine three years ago that, she said, affected the program she pushed during the Aquino administration, where she served as health secretary.
Cavite Rep. Abraham Tolentino brought up critical commentaries aired on ABS-CBN against his brother, former Metropolitan Manila Development Authority chairman and now Senator Francis Tolentino.
Cavite Rep. Jesus Crispin Remulla insisted that ABS-CBN's closure because of an expired franchise