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Smelly plan

By: Philippine Daily Inquirer January 22,2020 - 11:27 AM

Was Solicitor General Jose Calida merely sticking a toe in the political waters to test the temperature?

It’s been a week since a report quoting unimpeachable sources said the Office of the Solicitor General was preparing to file a quo warranto petition at the Supreme Court seeking to revoke the franchise of ABS-CBN for purported violation of the law and of the franchise terms and conditions. The supposed plan has yet to materialize at this writing, but it would be folly to dismiss it altogether even if Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra claimed ignorance of it and said it had not been discussed in any Cabinet meeting. Maybe he’s just out of the loop. The information on the planned petition could not have been plucked from nowhere like, say, the number of Filipinos addicted to crystal meth. And it’s not as though stranger, smellier, things haven’t happened. Such as, for example, Calida’s quo warranto petition to remove Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno on the basis of her failure to submit complete statements of assets, liabilities and net worth when she was applying for the post. Calida’s petition was a barefaced violation of the constitutional provision that impeachment is the only process allowed to remove a chief justice from office, but the unthinkable became possible: The Supreme Court en banc voted 8-6 to grant it on the basis of an alleged illegal appointment. (And a prime beneficiary of Sereno’s ouster, who publicly campaigned against her in the most unseemly manner, claiming supposed snubs among other things, went on to occupy the post and enjoy its benefits even if she had only a couple of months left before mandatory retirement. But that’s another story.)

Thus it is that Calida’s supposed planned quo warranto petition against ABS-CBN smells. Like ABS-CBN now, Sereno was the object of President Duterte’s displeasure, having insisted that it was the judicial branch that should be responsible for perceived erring judges. He has fulminated against ABS-CBN since 2017, accusing it not only of reporting “unfair news” about him but also of “swindling”—not airing his political ads during the 2016 election campaign despite his having paid for them. He has sworn at the network in a manner that would make a sailor blush and threatened to sue it for “multiple syndicated estafa”—but, unaccountably, has not taken it to court.

Instead, with the sand in the hourglass trickling inexorably toward March 30, when ABS-CBN’s 25-year franchise expires, the President has amped up his fusillade. “If you expect that the franchise will be renewed, I’m sorry. I will see to it that you’re out,” he said early last December. And, approaching the new year, as though he were dispensing sound business advice, he said the owners of the network would do well to “just sell” it given that Congress’ renewal of the franchise was unlikely.

The 1987 Constitution provides that the grant of a franchise to TV and radio companies is a power lodged in Congress. But the majority of the lawmakers are not sufficiently motivated to exercise that power: House Bill No. 4349, filed in November 2016 and seeking to renew the network’s franchise for another 25 years, lapsed into nothing in July 2019 when the 17th Congress adjourned; the same sponsor, Rep. Micaela Violago, has since refiled it.

At least five such bills are pending in Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano’s House. Late last October, he made noises about finally getting down to deliberations, but nothing has come out of them so far.

There’s a lengthening list of signatories to a petition calling for the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise, and even an ally of the President, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, has called on Calida to desist from filing the quo warranto petition. Such a move would be “seen as the government’s harassment of ABS-CBN and certainly a clear assault on press freedom as enshrined in our Constitution,” Rodriguez said, adding that the petition would “encroach on the powers of the legislative branch and would violate the constitutional doctrine of the separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches.”

Altermidya, a nationwide network of independent and progressive media outfits, stated the obvious: “The heightened threats by the Duterte administration to derail ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal speak volumes of how the President is following the Marcosian game plan to the letter. How can the nation forget how, in the early years of the Marcos dictatorship, the regime confiscated TV and radio stations owned by the Lopezes and transferred the control to his cronies?”But incredibly, Palace mouthpiece Salvador Panelo told reporters that the Solicitor General was acting alone and not under Mr. Duterte’s instructions. Besides, he pronounced blithely, press freedom had its “limitations.”

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