SMNI host cited in contempt, detained

Delon Porcalla - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines — The House committee on legislative franchises has detained and cited in contempt Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) host Jeffrey Celiz after he repeatedly refused to identify the source of his “unverified” information alleging that Speaker Martin Romualdez incurred 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 2nd District Rep. Johnny Pimentel said.

Hearing no objection, panel chair Parañaque City 2nd District Rep. Gus Tambunting approved Pimentel’s motion.

Celiz will most likely spend his Christmas in detention, since Congress is scheduled to have its break on Dec. 15 and resume session on Jan. 22 next year.

Quezon 2nd District Rep. David Suarez, who has been vocal in his stand against SMNI anchors Celiz and Lorraine Badoy, insisted that they cannot invoke the Sotto Law or Republic Act 11458 on the basis that Celiz admitted his information was not vetted at all.

The Sotto Law exempts publishers, editors or reporters from revealing the news source or information obtained in confidence.

“Celiz admitted in the last hearing that his source got it all wrong, and he even apologized for that. So why should he now invoke the Sotto Law, which is not anymore applicable to him?” Suarez declared.

Celiz also admitted last week that his source was from the Senate, not the House.

“This has something to do with the relationship between the Senate and the House. I won’t be surprised if the Senate might conduct its own inquiry into this matter as well. You already involved the Senate in this misinformation and fake news,” Suarez added.

Tambunting agreed and said that Celiz “always cited a law (Sotto Law) that did not apply to the committee because it was not the law’s intent. He cannot hide under that law and lastly, he was already given counsel.”

Suarez said it was important for the SMNI host to identify his source since Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said he knew no one in the Senate who could have provided such information.

‘Suspend’ SMNI

Meanwhile, a first-term lawmaker from Davao City has filed a House resolution calling on the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to “suspend” the operations of SMNI where former president Rodrigo Duterte has been hurling accusations against congressmen.

PBA party-list Rep. Margarita Nograles authored House Resolution 1499 urging the NTC to “suspend the operations” of SMNI, owned by religious leader Apollo Quiboloy, who is wanted in the US for sex trafficking of children.

Davao City-based SMNI is also known for falsely red-tagging or labeling journalists, activists and a regional trial court judge as communist rebels or sympathizers.

“Pending the recommendation of the committee on legislative franchises, it is the duty of the NTC to immediately stop the deliberate dissemination of false information that may generate cynicism and mistrust on matters involving public interest,” Nograles said in her three-page resolution.

“With the admission that the source of information was wrong and the information was not vetted, it is clear that SMNI violated its responsibility to the public not to use its stations or facilities for the deliberate dissemination of false information or willful misrepresentation to the detriment of public interest,” she argued.

Nograles, daughter of the late speaker Prospero Nograles, was referring to the admissions made by SMNI anchors Celiz and Badoy that their information on the alleged P1.8 billion in travel expenses of Speaker Martin Romualdez was “unverified.”

House Secretary General Reginald Velasco, along with Deputy Secretary General for Finance Dante Roberto Maling, earlier presented a financial report on foreign travel expenses for the Office of the Speaker, House members and the secretariat.

“For the Office of the Speaker, the total expenses from January to October 2023 is P4.3 million. For all congressmen and the secretariat covering the same period, the total expenses are P35.2 million,” Velasco told lawmakers, refuting SMNI’s report.

“The overall total for the Office of the Speaker, the House secretariat and members of Congress on official trips is P39.6 million,” he added.

For its unverified claims, Nograles maintained that SMNI “violated” the terms and conditions of its franchise, reiterating the statements issued by Suarez and Tambunting.

The TV network was granted a legislative franchise (Republic Act 11422) in August 2019, allowing it to operate for 25 years or until 2044.

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