A lawyers’ group has warned against what it called “weaponization” of the law against telecommunications companies and the media, saying the Filipino public and consumers will be the real victims of the government’s threat to close down Globe Telecom and Smart Communications in the same month that broadcast network ABS-CBN shut down after Congress voted to deny the renewal of its franchise.
Tagapagtanggol ng Watawat, a lawyers’ group advocating adherence to the constitution and the rule of law, joined other concerned stakeholders in both the private sector and the government in expressing “alarm” over the economic uncertainty and rise in unemployment that a shutdown of the telcos could bring about during this pandemic.
“Even in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, we do not think it is in the interest of the public to jeopardize telecommunications services and cause unnecessary uncertainty to the people who are now forced to rely on online commerce, work-from-home setups, and distance learning,” said Arnel Valeña, convenor and spokesperson of Tagapagtanggol ng Watawat.
The group was reacting to President Duterte’s statement in his fifth State of the Nation Address, in which he decried the ‘less-than-ideal’ services of the two telcos and warned that he would expropriate them unless their services improved by December.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said that “government expropriation is not the solution” to improve telecommunication services in the country as this may cause harm. Instead, he believed that encouraging competition is the way forward.
Valeña said Duterte even acknowledged that shutting down the telecommunications operations of Smart and Globe would mean that “we revert back to the line telephone.”
“This would reverse decades of technological advancement that has become an unavoidable necessity for people nowadays,” Valeña said.
“This injury to public interest may already be seen in the non-renewal of the broadcasting franchise of ABS-CBN Corporation, which deprived far-flung areas of much-needed information and diversion amid the pandemic,” he said.
Speaking at a recent webinar organized by the Philippine Bar Association, Dean Mel Sta. Maria Jr. of the Far Eastern University Institute of Law said that the ABS-CBN situation is a “microcosm” of the government’s attacks on Philippine media. Referring to the government’s cleaver maneuvering of the legal system to “weaponize” it against its critics, Sta. Maria said that “the facade may be technically legal but the underpinning motivations and the consequent result are unconstitutional and against public policy, morals, or good custom.”
Commenting on Duterte’s impromptu statements threatening companies with closure, Sta. Maria said that it is an abuse of the president’s immunity from suit and is a form of weaponizing the law, “a legal right abused to the maximum to cause fear, using legal immunity pursuant to the law, and in effect weaponizing that law”.
First it was the closure of ABS-CBN and next could be the expropriation of telcos if they do not improve their “less-than-ideal” services by December of this year, he said.
Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate public services panel, acknowledged that there is need for fast, affordable and reliable Internet service, but she also noted that the improvement of Internet service and coverage will not be possible by merely obligating the telcos to shape up.
“Pertinent national agencies and local government units should step up so that the approval of at least 25 regulatory permits for the construction of cell towers will not take six months,” she said.
Even as the incumbent telcos continue to invest in network upgrades, third telco DITO Telecommunity is not expected to be ready to step in by December or even by their commercial launch deadline in March 2021. DITO missed the July 8 technical launch deadline and to date only has 300 cell sites out of the 1,300 sites they committed to the government.
With its access to information through media and the Internet under attack, at the end of the day, it is the Filipino public that are the real victims of this “weaponization” of the law, Valeña said.