A house panel on Tuesday cited Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) anchor Jeffrey Celiz for contempt and detained him after he refused to reveal the source of his fake news.
The committee on legislative franchises led by Parañaque City Rep. Gus Tambunting ordered Celiz to be detained at the Batasan Complex in Quezon City until after the adoption in the plenary of the panel’s committee report on its inquiry into the matter.
During a hearing of the panel, Celiz refused several times to say who his source was for his claim that Speaker Martin Romualdez had spent P1.8 billion in travel expenses.
“I move to detain Mr. Celiz for he was cited in contempt until the adoption
of the committee report at the plenary session,” Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel said. The motion was seconded and carried.
In refusing to answer, Celiz invoked the Sotto law or Republic Act (RA) No. 11458, which exempts publishers, editors, and reporters from revealing their news sources or information obtained in confidence.
However, panel members said the Sotto Law does not apply in the case of Celiz, who would only say his information came from the Senate, and that it was inaccurate.
“At the last hearing, he (Celiz) admitted that his source fed him the wrong information and apologized, so to use that Sotto Law is no longer applicable to him because he said it was wrong,” said Quezon Rep David Suarez, who spoke in Filipino.
Tambunting said the panel gave Celiz all the opportunities to exercise his constitutional rights, including his right to counsel. They even offered to take his testimony in an executive session.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Suarez, the proponent of the inquiry into the allegations about the Speaker’s travel expenses, pressed Celiz to name his informant.
Suarez said it was important for the SMNI program host to identify his source because Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri stated that he knew no one in the Senate who could have provided such information.
He quoted Zubiri as saying that until Celiz named names, the Speaker’s travel expenses claim was just an “intrigue” aimed at creating controversy and a “rift in the strong partnership” of the Senate and the House.
Suarez further quoted the Senate president as adding that he would order an investigation and impose disciplinary action on the Senate employee involved if he were identified.
“So I am asking you, who is the source of your information, which you have admitted to be not true, and who you claimed is from the Senate?” Suarez asked Celiz.
The Quezon lawmaker said identifying the informant was crucial because the issue “involved inter-parliamentary relationship” between the Senate and the House.
Celiz refused to answer the question and proceeded to give a lengthy statement.
Meanwhile, Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Ty Pimentel accused SMNI of being a “serial harasser” and an “irresponsible network,” as lawmakers delved deeper into its franchise violations related to dissemination of fake news and red-tagging.
At the continuation of the House committee on legislative franchises hearing, Pimentel raised an alarm over SMNI’s tendency to harass its targets by spreading false information.
He drew attention to the possible infringement of SMNI’s congressional franchise under Republic Act (RA) 11422, specifically referencing Section 4 on responsibilities to the public, which could serve as grounds for revoking the network’s franchise.
“It seems that SMNI has a pattern of harassing individuals and entities using false information. I sincerely believe that SMNI is being used as a tool to spread false information with regard to attacking, maligning, [and] destroying the reputation of certain individuals and entities,” Pimentel said.
Pimentel said SMNI faced several cases, not only before the courts, but also before regulatory agencies and industry associations.
He underscored significant cases, such as lawsuits filed against SMNI by the families of missing University of the Philippines students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, and a case involving broadcaster Atom Araullo, whom the network accused of having ties to communist groups.
One key point of discussion involved accusations made by SMNI anchor Lorraine Badoy against former Vice President Leni Robredo.
Pimentel questioned whether there was substantial evidence supporting the claim of an alliance between Robredo and communist groups.
But Badoy said the statement was part of her official duty as strategic communications cluster head of National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict or NTF-ELCAC.
The committee requested Badoy to submit supporting documents from the NTF-ELCAC to verify the government’s stand on the matter.
Pimentel also noted SMNI’s alleged violation of the 2007 Broadcaster Code of the Philippines, specifically regarding the credibility of news sources and reports.
As the hearing unfolded, Pimentel underscored the need to establish the alleged pattern of spreading false information by SMNI.
He cited instances where SMNI aired interviews containing controversial claims.
The hearing also touched on the accusation that SMNI violated the broadcaster code, with Pimentel highlighting the earlier debunked claim that Romualdez spent P1.8 billion on travels this year.
House Secretary General Reginald Velasco earlier disclosed that from January to October this year, the Office of the Speaker, House members, and the Secretariat collectively accrued P39.6 million in travel expenses.
Velasco clarified that out of this total, the Office of the Speaker disbursed only P4,347,712, a far cry from the P1.8 billion claimed by Celiz.
While acknowledging that a comprehensive investigation has yet to be conducted, Pimentel asserted that preliminary observations indicate potential breaches of Section 4 of RA 11422, which states, among others, that the grantee “shall not use stations or facilities” for the “dissemination of deliberately false information or willful misrepresentation to the detriment of the public interest.”
“We can see SMNI is really not a responsible network,” Pimentel said.