Going further the question of foreign ownership of a Philippine media firm, several lawmakers on Wednesday raised a new query on full ownership and management of a broadcast franchise by somebody who holds a dual citizenship.
The man in the crosshairs, of course, is Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III — now chairman emeritus of the beleaguered ABS-CBN franchise, whom some lawmakers claimed had violated Article 16, Section 11 of the 1987 Constitution, when he served as chairman and chief executive officer of the ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation in 1996.
He was president of the company from 1993 to 1996. The network was retrieved by his family in 1986 shortly after the ouster of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whom the Lopezes accused of unfairly seizing the company in favor of his cronies.
The Constitution drafted and ratified in 1987 under the administration of the late President Corazon Aquino, however, is haunting Lopez back. It says mass media must be 100 percent-owned and managed by a Filipino.
A number of lawmakers from the House of Representatives on Wednesday, however, questioned Lopez’s dual citizenship during the joint committee hearing on the application of ABS-CBN for a fresh franchise.
Lopez admitted that he holds dual citizenship — American and Filipino — after he was compelled to be electronically present in the hearing.
The lawmakers believe that he had violated the Constitution, one of the strongest allegations — they said — that should compel the Congress to deny his firm a new 25-year franchise.
Lopez, who attended the hearing after being summoned by the House Committees on Constitutional Franchises and the Good Government and Public Accountability, told the Chamber that he is an American citizen as he was born in the United States.
But he also claimed he is a Filipino citizen as he was born to Filipino parents.
In the year 2000, he said his Filipino citizenship was confirmed by the Department of Justice (DoJ) upon his application for a certificate of recognition of citizenship, only a year after he acquired a Philippine passport. He was 48-years old at that time.
Lopez also responded in the negative to questions if he had renounced his Filipino citizenship, applied for naturalization, took an oath of allegiance, or had his Filipino citizenship canceled.
“Undeniably, Gabby Lopez is a natural-born citizen. The question is whether or not a dual citizen can own a media company,” Ako Bicol Rep. Alfredo Garbin stated.
Deputy Speaker and SAGIP Partylist Rep. Rodante Marcoleta, the lawmaker who earlier alleged that Lopez was an American citizen when he took control of the company, said the constitution clearly provides that media firms must be owned by Filipino citizens.
“Did Article 16, Section 11 of the 1987 Constitution contemplate a situation where the Filipino citizen mentioned in that particular article should also be citizen of another country?” he asked.
“It should not be a problem if Mr. Lopez is purely a Filipino, and that he is not an American. We will have a problem processing that particular issue, because the Constitution says ‘only Filipino,’” he said.
For other lawmakers, a legislation is needed to answer the present controversy.
“If we have a question if a person who holds a dual citizenship can own a mass media company because the Constitution said only a Filipino can, then probably that is the duty of the Congress to craft a law if you want to,” Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate. “We cannot say it is forbidden without a law that says it is.”
Isabela Reps. Antonio “Tonypet” Albano and Manila Rep. Edward Maceda also suggested to study the creation of law that will amend the contentious provision.
DoJ Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, meanwhile, clarified that the certification of recognition of citizenship issued by the DoJ was not a grant but a confirmation of Lopez’s citizenship.
She said Lopez is a Filipino citizen as he was born to Filipino parents.
“(Mr. Lopez’s) use of his US passport is not a reason for him to lose his Filipino citizenship. His not having a Philippine passport is also not a reason for him not to be considered a Filipino,” she added.
Lopez told the joint panel that he considered renouncing his American citizenship.
“I have considered it but the way I see it, I am first and foremost a Filipino. I will live and I will die in the Philippines. If it came down to conflict of interest, I would give up my US citizenship in a minute,” he said.
Lopez urged the joint panel to look beyond technicality and consider his record of service.
“I stand by my record over the last 35 years. I have been committed to the people of this country. It is a trust that has been passed on to me by my father and by his father before him,” he said.
His citizenship is only one of the many issues the lawmakers want Lopez to clear up.
Solicitor General Jose C. Calida, in his quo warranto petition before the Supreme Court, claimed ABS-CBN violated its franchise when it operated a pay-per-view channel through free-to-air signals via the Kapamilya Box Office without any government permit.
It also allegedly sold Philippine Deposit Receipts to foreigners — a violation of the Constitution.
The petition also charged ABS-CBN Convergence of corporate layering through transfer of controlling interest sans the Congress’ approval.
ABS-CBN Convergence also allegedly failed to list at least 30 percent of its capital stock in the Philippine Stock Exchange.
The network ceased operations on 5 May.