MANILA (3rd UPDATE)-- A joint House panel's scrutiny of alleged bias in ABS-CBN's news coverage while deciding on the network's application for a new franchise can be deemed as "prior restraint on press freedom," several members of the House of Representatives said on Monday.
Occidental Mindoro Rep. Josephine Ramirez-Sato opted not to interpellate during the hearing, saying discussions on news bias in connection with the franchise bid were "improper."
"I strongly believe... that to discuss the alleged bias in the hearing of the application for the renewal of the franchise is tantamount to prior restraint on press freedom, and is violative of what is enshrined in our Constitution, in the long line of jurisprudence, and in international convention," she said.
Sato then went on to cite several cases wherein the courts decided in favor of freedom of expression and free speech.
She also said that those who felt that their rights were violated should go to court to air their grievances.
"These laws give a highly preferred status to the freedom of speech, expression and freedom of the press. If there are sectors who believe that their rights were violated, they should go to the court and not in this hearing for the renewal of franchise. They should go to the court so that the court can calibrate, weigh and declare that those private rights overturn, overweigh the preferred status of our freedom of speech, expression and freedom of the press," Sato said.
Sato likewise reminded her colleagues that it is their duty to protect press freedom and freedom of expression at all times.
"The freedom of speech and of the press, which we are legally and morally bound by our oath to protect, in all our legislative processes, goes to the very soul and essence of our democracy, which will have an impact, a strong impact in the future of our beloved country. So, we must, at all times, protect the freedom of the press," she said.
In his manifestation, Albay 1st District Rep. Edcel Lagman echoed Sato's sentiments, reiterating that freedom of the press and of expression is "accorded primacy" among civil liberties protected by the Bill of Rights.
"The freedom of the press, which is an integral component of the freedom of expression, is accorded primacy in the constellation of civil liberties which are protected by the Bill of Rights," he said.
He also added that under its franchise, ABS-CBN is not prohibited from taking sides and, just like in other democratic countries, media companies should be allowed to express their views with respect to political events and elections.
"In other countries of the same democratic heritage, media outlets are given that opportunity to express their views or even to have their own biases with respect to political events, as well as during elections," Lagman said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said that although it is the constitutional duty of the Congress to grant franchises, it is not their duty to dictate how journalists should do their reports.
"Bagama't konstitusyonal na papel ng Kongreso ang pagbigay o hindi pagbigay ng bagong prangkisa sa ABS-CBN, hindi papel ng Kongreso ang pagtatakda kung ano at paano ang gagawing pag-uulat at pagbabalita ng mga mamamahayag o miyembro ng medya. Ang dapat maging papel ng Kongreso ay tiyakin na ang mga kasamahan o mga miyembro ng medya o mga journalist ay malayang nagagawa ang kanilang mga trabaho, ang kanilang pag-uulat, ang kanilang pagbusisi sa nangyayari sa ating lipunan nang walang pagkitil sa kanilang karapatan," Zarate said.
(While it is the constitutional duty of Congress to grant or not grant ABS-CBN a new franchise, it is not the duty of Congress to mandate what and how a report should be done by members of the media. The role of the Congress should be to ensure that journalists and members of the media are free to do their jobs, their reports about the society without impeding the exercise of their rights.)
A number of congressmen spent much of the hearing, which lasted around 10 hours, raising personal issues against previous ABS-CBN reports, which they deemed negative to them or their interests.
Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta, for instance, complained about news reports by ABS-CBN reporter Mike Navallo saying that he had authored bills granting franchises of more than 50 years to other companies in the past.
"Totoo po iyun, wala po akong ini-akda na prangkisa, kung prangkisa lang ang paguusapan. Nangyayari po na minsan ang pangalan ng bawat isa sa'min ay nahahalo na parang co-authors. Kung minsan consolidate po 'yun. Somebody will move that, 'All members present, all members of the franchise committee be made co-authors of this bill.' Something we cannot control," Marcoleta said.
Navallo explained on TV Patrol on June 8 that the documents of the bills he cited in his June 3 report were from the official website of the House of Representatives, and are therefore assumed to be truthful, these being part of "public record."
Marcoleta also hit what he described as a "malicious" headline of this news website on former Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay's death which reads, "Ex-DFA chief Yasay, who led Duterte's China pivot, dies". Yasay died last June 12 of pneumonia due to the recurrence of his cancer.
"Lalagyan pa ninyo kasi ng flavor. Lalagyan ninyo pa ng palabok," he told ABS-CBN officials. He noted that other news agencies had a 'simpler' headline.
But ABS-CBN Integrated News chief Ma. Regina Reyes said the headline was factual and gave context to Yasay being at the helm of the foreign affairs department when the policy shift was implemented. She said it had no malice against the late foreign secretary.
Marcoleta has been critical of ABS-CBN's application for a new franchise, citing, among other issues, the 50-year restriction in the constitution. But the limit applies to a single franchise grant.
Deputy Minority Leader Dr. Janette Garin raised the network's coverage of the Dengvaxia vaccine 3 years ago which affected the program she pushed during the Aquino administration where she served as health secretary.
Cavite 8th District Rep. Abraham "Bambol" Tolentino brought up critical commentaries aired on ABS-CBN against his brother, former Metropolitan Manila Development Authority chairman and now Senator Francis Tolentino.
Cavite 7th District Rep. Jesus Crispin Remulla insisted that ABS-CBN's closure because of an expired franchise had nothing to do with press freedom.
The National Telecommunications Communication shut down the network last May 5, the day after its old 25-year franchise was left by congressmen to expire.
President Rodrigo Duterte had repeatedly threatened to take ABS-CBN off the air, in what media groups believe set the direction in the congressional franchise hearings.
Reyes said the shutdown had a "chilling effect" on the news organization.
"Hindi rin naman natin maitatatwa o maitatanggi ang ideyo po ng press freedom. Ang pagpa-practice po ng press freedom ay hindi lang para sa mga journalists," she said.
"Lahat po ng mga mamamayan ay nakikinabang po rito."