Filipinos would still enjoy press freedom even if ABS-CBN is forced to shut down because of franchise problems, the Palace said Friday.
In an interview on the ANC news channel, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said freedom of the press will not diminish by the loss of one network, saying other news organizations continue to operate.
“Assuming that ABS-CBN will be gone, are you telling me that freedom of the press will die? Of course not! There are other networks, other radio stations,” Panelo said.
ABS-CBN has been the target of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ire. While his allies in Congress have delayed hearing bills that would renew its franchise, Solicitor General Jose Calida has filed a quo warranto petition before the Supreme Court seeking to revoke it altogether for alleged violations.
In 2018, a similar petition resulted in the ouster of then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
But Panelo said Calida’s quo warranto petition does not attack anyone’s right to criticize the government.
“The very grounds of the quo warranto do not even touch your right to criticize, your right to make editorials, right, so what is the connection of freedom of expression or of the press? None, right?” Panelo said.
Calida’s petition accuses ABS-CBN of unlawfully exercising its franchise by allegedly offering paid broadcast content without government approval and by allegedly allowing foreign ownership in violation of constitutional restrictions.
Several media groups have expressed their support for ABS-CBN, a company that employs 11,000 workers, and have linked the government moves against it as an assault on press freedom.
The issue has also pitted the House against the Senate after Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano took senators to task for taking up the ABS-CBN franchise renewal when such bills should emanate from the House.
On Friday, Senator Francis Pangilinan said holding parallel hearings in the Senate on bills that should emanate from the House—such as the budget bill, tax bills or franchise measures—was “standard parliamentary practice” for decades now.
“It is certainly consistent with the law and parliamentary practice,” Pangilinan said.
The Senate committee on public services, chaired by Senator Grace Poe, will start deliberating on the network’s franchise on Feb. 24, Monday, while Cayetano says the House would tackle such bills by August at the earliest.
Cayetano said franchise bills should emanate from the House.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said Cayetano may have a point since the Constitution provides that bills of local application like franchise measures must emanate from the House.
But, he said Cayetano is wrong in equating it to a constitutional violation.
He also said it has long been the practice of the Senate to conduct committee hearings on tax and budget measures even before the House transmits their approved version of the bills to the Senate.
Lacson said it would be a constitutional violation of the committee chairperson issues a report to the Senate floor for plenary debates. “We have not done [that] and will never do,” Lacson said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III also defended the committee action, saying it violated no constitutional provisions.
He said a committee hearing is not the Senate, and it becomes Senate business when the committee issues a report.
The House has not yet scheduled hearings on the 11 bills pending seeking the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise.
Republic Act No. 3846 requires television and radio broadcasting companies to secure a franchise from the government before they are allowed to operate. It is Congress that will decide whether to extend the franchise to public utilities, such as the media.
However, despite the calls from a number of lawmakers for the House committee on legislative franchises to tackle the issue, hearings on ABS-CBN’s franchise remains unscheduled.
Cayetano said no one was saying they would forgo the discussion of the franchise.
“What I’m saying is if we set the hearing now, Congress would spend so much of its time and energy on this matter. No one would attend the other House hearings,” he said.
He said they could tackle the franchise issue by July or August.
Also on Friday, the Palace defended Senator Ronald dela Rosa for expressing his support for President Duterte on the ABS-CBN issue.
“Maybe he supports the President because they have the same principles on some matters and subjects. If it’s contrary to his principle, of course, he would also express opposition,” Panelo said.
Dela Rosa has been criticized on social media for affirming his support for Duterte when asked how the President’s opinion would influence his vote on the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN.
“There’s nothing wrong with him supporting the President,“ Panelo said.
Dela Rosa, a former national police chief, added he would “live and die” and “sink and swim” with the President, despite saying he is not blindly following Duterte,
He also said that he would vote on the network’s franchise renewal based on whether or not its alleged abuses are true.
The labor group Defend Jobs Philippines, meanwhile, lambasted Cayetano for his statements slamming the Senate for conducting hearing on bills seeking for the renewal of the legislative franchise of ABS-CBN.
Defend Jobs Philippines asked Cayetano “why is he so much eager and hell-bent on selling the country’s patrimony to foreigners upon railroading House bills on full foreign ownership of public service sector of the country and Cha-Cha.”
“Speaker Cayetano seems to be much interested in passing legislation that would put our national patrimony, sovereignty, and people in danger instead of enacting laws that will protect and promote the best interests of Filipino workers,” said Thadeus Ifurung, Defend Jobs Philippines spokesman.
“Instead of prioritizing bills like the security of tenure bill, national minimum wage, granting legislative franchise for ABS-CBN for the benefit of its 11,000 workers, Cayetano is acting like a pimp of our national sovereignty and patrimony,” he added.
“Now who’s violating the Constitution? The Philippine Senate which is set to conduct hearings about the ABS-CBN franchise renewal bill or Speaker Cayetano who is more than willing to open our country to foreign ownership and Cha-Cha?” Ifurung said. With Willie Casas