In order to insulate press freedom from partisan politics and foreclose any arbitrary denial by legislators of the grant and renewal of legislative franchises to mass media corporations, the Radio Control Act of 1931 must be repealed.
The 89-year old law provides that radio stations, now including television stations, must secure from the Congress a prior legislative franchise in order to operate.
While the 1987 Constitution does not require mass media enterprises to secure such franchise, the Radio Control Act imposes the requirement.
The recent controversial and arbitrary rejection of ABS-CBN’s bid for a franchise renewal justifies the repeal of the anachronistic Radio Control Act.
The authority to grant certificates of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) to mass media enterprises, without the need for a prior legislative franchise, must be maintained with the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) under regulatory parameters which would ensure protection to press freedom.
The NTC has developed adequate expertise in fairly regulating telecommunications and broadcast operations even as any possible abuse of discretion on its part would be readily subject to judicial review unlike acts of the Congress which are difficult to annul.
Mass media corporations are not within the ambit of Section 11 of Article XII because this provision covers public utilities at least 60% of whose capital is owned by Filipinos.
Mass media are not public utilities and are 100% Filipino owned and managed.
There is no law or jurisprudence which categorically classifies television and radio networks as public utilities considering that the services of the latter, by nature, are for hire or compensation unlike mass media whose broadcasts are essentially free to the viewing public and subsidized by advertisements.
The pertinent constitutional provision on mass media is Section 11 of Article XVI which does not require any legislative franchise for the operation of television and radio networks.
Even the “Public Telecommunications Policy Act of the Philippines” or R.A. No. 7925, which distinguishes a public telecommunications entity from a broadcasting network, only requires a legislative franchise for a telecommunication entity under Section 16 thereof which provides: “No person shall commence or conduct the business of being a public telecommunications entity without first obtaining a franchise.”
Moreover, R.A. No. 7925 defines “franchise” as “a privilege conferred upon a telecommunications entity by Congress, authorizing that entity to engage in a certain type of telecommunications service.”
In Associated Communications vs. NTC (G.R. No. 144109, February 17, 2003) the Supreme Court observed and ruled that:
“What exactly is the reason or rationale for imposing a prior congressional franchise? There seems to be no valid reason for it except to impose added burden and expenses on the part of the applicant. The justification appears to be simply because this was required in the past so it is now. We are reminded of the forceful denunciation of Justice Holmes of a stubborn adherence to an anachronistic law.
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“The call to dispense with the requisite legislative franchise must, however, be addressed to Congress as the lawmaker of the land for the Court’s function is to interpret and not to rewrite the law. As long as the law remains unchanged, the requirement of a franchise to operate a television station must be upheld.”
No less than the Supreme Court almost two decades ago in the aforesaid case had joined the call for the repeal of the requirement of a legislative franchise for mass media corporations, and the High Court’s endorsement of said repeal is an acknowledgement that the requirement of a franchise from the Congress is not provided for in the Constitution but only by law, which can be repealed.
EDCEL C. LAGMAN