MANILA (UPDATE) - The head of a Senate panel set to investigate ABS-CBN Corp's franchise compliance said Tuesday she would proceed with her inquiry to fulfill the chamber's "constitutional mandate," after the government's chief lawyer sought a gag order from the high court.
Solicitor General Jose Calida, who questioned the validity of ABS-CBN's franchise ahead of its March expiry, asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to gag "parties and persons acting on their behalf."
"Whether it will apply the gag order on our hearings is up to the Court to decide, but our hearing will push through according to our Constitutional mandate," said Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate Committee on Public Services.
The Committee will move ABS-CBN's franchise hearing to a date earlier than its initial February 27 schedule, Poe told reporters in a chance interview.
"Let's just say na ginagawan nila ng paraan para 'wag magsalita 'yong ating mga resource persons... Siyempre, kailangan din kami gumawa ng hakbang para maprotektahan din 'yong aming layunin dito [sa Senado]," she said.
(Let's say they're making an effort to gag our resource persons... Of course, we need to take steps to protect our goal here in the Senate.)
"Paano natin malalaman ang katotohanan kung hindi makakapagsalita ang mga 'yon? Alam naman natin na pagdating sa mga proceedings sa Korte, hindi naman nadidinig ng taong bayan," she said.
(How will we know the truth if they can't talk? We know that the public does not hear proceedings in court.)
"Mas maganda kung bukas ang mga pagdinig kasi kung may tinatago mas may duda ka kung bakit tinatago," she said.
(It's better that the hearing is open because if you are hiding something, there is doubt why.)
The decision to move the date came after the Supreme Court gave ABS-CBN 5 days to reply to Calida's petition to issue a gag order pending resolution of his plea to invalidate the franchises of ABS-CBN Corp and its unit ABS-CBN Convergence.
"Wala pa namang decision ang Korte Suprema so walang dahilan para huwag muna sila magsalita kasi hindi pa sila saklaw," she said.
(The Supreme Court has no decision yet so there's no reason for them not to speak because they are not yet covered.)
Sen. Panfilo Lacson earlier warned that while the Senate may be exempt from the gag order, resource persons who may be summoned to the chamber might be covered by the ruling.
"They may run the risk of being cited for contempt once they express their opinions that might pose a clear and present danger in the administration of justice by directly influencing the members of the Court in rendering their votes to resolve the pending petition for quo warranto," he said.
Poe said she had "trust and faith" that the Supreme Court would remain impartial and base its ruling on former cases.
Poe cited a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that denied a lawmaker's petition for a gag order, after then President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III addressed on national television a case that is pending before the tribunal.
The congressman, Augusto Syjuco from Iloilo, questioned before the SC Aquino's Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), a stimulus program that diverted savings to priority projects.
Aquino denied wrongdoing in a nationally televised address. The Supreme Court eventually declared some parts of the DAP as unconstitutional.
“The Supreme Court will still have to decide on it under existing laws and all the cases it has decided before recognizing the jurisdiction of its co-equal branch,” Poe said.
SC CANNOT STOP CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the high court has no power to stop congressional investigations.
“No court has the authority to prohibit the Committee from requiring respondent to appear and testify before it," Drilon said, citing previous Supreme Court rulings.
Under Section 21, Article VI of the 1987 Constitution, the Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure, he said.
"The [Solicitor General's] petition cannot prevent the Senate from hearing the issues on ABS-CBN. The petition has no effect on the Senate,” he said.
The state also needs to prove that there is a "compelling reason" for it to "curtail the freedom to speak freely," Sen. Joel Villanueva said.
"If you look at the precedence, traditions, nandiyan lahat (it's all there). Mayroon kaming karapatan na gawin ang aming trabaho (We have the right to do our job). There is no compelling reason for the state," he said.
But administration ally Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa said Calida's latest petition had "basis."
"Talo ang gobyerno pagdating diyan sa public opinion dahil ABS-CBN, nasa inyo 'yong media (The government is on the losing end in terms of public opinion because ABS-CBN has the media)," he said.
"You can shape the public opinion anytime you want, whatever you want to shape dahil kayo may hawak ng media (because you handle media)," he said.
Poe earlier said that aside from taking up the franchise bills of ABS-CBN, she wanted her committee to tackle the issue to protect the Senate's role in granting and revoking franchises.
"Ang pakay dito ay ito: Higit sa prangkisa ng ABS-CBN, ang ating pinaglalaban din dito ay ang awtoridad at mandato ng lehislatura," she said.
IN CASE OF A GAG ORDER
Should the Supreme Court favor Calida's petition, it cannot cover the "totality" of ABS-CBN's franchise issues, Sen. Sonny Angara said in a separate interview.
"Kung may gag order man (If there's a gag order), maybe it will be just on certain issues. You cannot put a gag order a totality ng issue on whether you can grant a franchise or not," he said.
Several senators are also prepared to examine the gag order should the high court issue it, Poe said.
"'Pag may lumabas na ruling, kailangan din namin tingnan mabuti ano ang basehan nito (Once a ruling is out, we also have to look closely at the basis)," she said.
"Ginagalang din natin ang Korte Suprema. Kung may kadahilanan, gusto din namin malaman (We respect the Supreme Court. If there's a reason, we also want to know)," she said.
Calida filed the plea for a gag order before the high court a day after Poe announced that the Senate would proceed to tackle ABS-CBN's franchise bills without waiting for action in the House of Representatives where at least 11 proposals seeking to renew the network's license have languished since July 2019.
His very urgent motion came pending high court action on his quo warranto petition seeking to invalidate franchises of ABS-CBN Corp and its unit ABS-CBN Convergence citing alleged abuses, including supposed violations of restrictions on foreign ownership.
The network's current franchise is set to expire on March 30. Several bills renewing its broadcast license are pending before the House of Representatives, but its leader, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, a staunch administration ally, has said the measures are "not that urgent."
ABS-CBN Corp has said it "did not violate the law."
“We did not violate the law. This case appears to be an attempt to deprive Filipinos of the services of ABS-CBN,” the company said in a statement.
ABS-CBN operates free TV Channel 2 and dzMM radio, while ABS-CBN Convergence is its telecom unit.
News.abs-cbn.com is the official news website of ABS-CBN Corp.