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Petition vs ABS-CBN meant to silence critics – journalists, rights groups

By: DJ Yap, JHESSET O. ENANO, Leila B. Salaverria - Inquirer.net | February 11,2020 - 01:20 PM

MANILA, Philippines — Journalists and rights groups on Monday decried the filing of a quo warranto petition by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) against television network ABS-CBN, calling it a renewed attempt to silence critics of the Duterte administration.

Some lawmakers called the move an attempt at usurping Congress’ sole authority to grant a legislative franchise.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the actions of Solicitor General Jose Calida showed that the government was “hell-bent” on using its powers to clamp down on the network that has earned the ire of the President.

“We must not allow the vindictiveness of one man, no matter how powerful, to run roughshod over the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of the press and of expression, and the people’s right to know,” the group said in a statement.

In a petition filed in the Supreme Court, Calida accused ABS-CBN of “abusive practice” for allegedly violating the terms and conditions of its franchise.

The 25-year franchise is set to expire on March 30, and several bills for its renewal remain pending in the House of Representatives.

In an interview, NUJP chair Nonoy Espina also criticized Malacañang’s attempts to distance itself from Calida’s actions, calling it “implausible” that the state’s top lawyer acted on his own accord.

‘Chilling effect’

Despite his “expressions of displeasure” against the network, President Rodrigo Duterte has nothing to do with it, his spokesperson, Salvador Panelo, said in a press briefing on Monday after the OSG filed the petition in the Supreme Court,

Attempts to shut down one of the most influential media networks in the country sends a “chilling effect” that would ripple throughout the media industry, said Luis Teodoro, board member of press watchdog Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

“In democratic discourse, you need as many voices as possible,” Teodoro told the Inquirer. “If you lose one voice, that detracts from the capacity of people to determine the truth.”

The University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication alluded to the silencing of the press during the Marcos dictatorship, citing different tactics that had been used to undermine the press in the past four years.

Human rights groups also assailed the OSG petition.

Carlos Conde, Asia researcher of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the case was an attempt to intimidate or control ABS-CBN for its critical reporting on the government.

Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights, said Calida’s move did not come as a surprise because Mr. Duterte had not hidden his displeasure with the network.

“This quo warranto petition is no longer just about the ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal: this is an attack on the Filipino people’s right to know,” she said.

Congress power

In the Senate, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said the chamber should assert its power over franchises amid the filing of the petition to void the franchise of ABS-CBN, which she called “an attack on the free press and a vindictive move against critical journalism.”

A majority of senators are likely to approve the renewal of the franchise should it reach the Senate before Congress’ scheduled recess starting March 14, according to Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri.

The Senate will need about three weeks to approve a franchise on third and final reading, Zubiri said.

The House legislative franchises committee, however, has not even tabled the bills that would renew the franchise for discussion. The panel is chaired by Palawan Rep. Franz Alvarez.

Sen. Grace Poe, who chairs the public services committee, said Congress could renew the network’s franchise despite the pending case.

The renewal should be weighed against the public service that the network provides, Poe said. Any lapse, she added, could be remedied by fines and other penalties that might not necessarily mean the cancellation of the franchise. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the political fence in the House bristled at the OSG “intervention” in seeking to terminate the expiring franchise of ABS-CBN, saying such was the job of Congress and no one else’s.

“The independence of Congress is at stake,” said Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, head of the House ways and means committee. He described Calida’s action as “treating us like we’re in kindergarten.”

Rep. Edcel Lagman said the quo warranto petition “preempts or usurps” the sole authority of Congress to extend or not to extend an existing legislative franchise.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said the petition was an “unconstitutional encroachment on the exclusive power of Congress to grant franchises.”—With reports from Julie M. Aurelio and Jigger J. Jerusalem

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