House revokes SMNI franchise on final reading

Sheila Crisostomo - The Philippine Star
House revokes SMNI franchise on final reading
Kingdom of Jesus Christ leader Apollo Quiboloy and SMNI.
News Released / Sonshine Media

MANILA, Philippines — Voting 284-4-4, the House of Representatives yesterday approved on third and final reading a bill that seeks to revoke the franchise granted to Swara Sug Media Corp., which operates the Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI).

House Bill 9710 effectively repeals Republic Act 11422, which extended the franchise granted to Swara Sug under RA 8122 for an additional 25 years in August 2019.

The renewed franchise was originally scheduled to expire in 2044.

The revocation was prompted by a series of alleged violations of the franchise, including peddling of fake news, involvement in red-tagging and committing significant corporate offenses.

HB 9710 was authored by party-list Reps. Rodge Gutierrez of 1 Rider and Jude Acidre of Tingog, Yevgeny Vicente Emano  (Misamis Oriental 2nd district), Emerson Pascual (Nueva Ecija 4th district) and Eulogio Rodriguez (Catanduanes).

The measure was sponsored by Parañaque City 2nd District Rep. and House committee on legislative franchise chairman Gus Tambunting.

After conducting six hearings since November last year, the panel concluded that SMNI had committed “multiple grace infractions” in violation of its franchise provisions.

During the hearing, SMNI admitted to transitioning from a non-stock, non-profit corporation to a sole corporation under religious leader Apollo Quiboloy of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ (KOJC) in 2006.

Last year, SMNI’s controlling stake was transferred to Marlon Acobo.

The panel concluded that SMNI underwent these “changes in its corporate structure” without prior approval from Congress, violating the provisions of its franchise.

SMNI also failed to “deliver truthful and balanced reporting to its audience” by engaging in “red-tagging and fake news peddling,” according to the committee.

The network was found to have engaged in “labeling” members of the House, former vice president Leni Robredo and private persons as members of the New People’s Army.

The congressional inquiry stemmed from allegations made by SMNI hosts of the “Laban Kasama ng Bayan” program that Speaker Martin Romualdez spent P1.8 billion on travel within a year.

The House had denied the allegation, citing official records showing that the entire chamber had spent P39.6 million in travel expenses from January to October last year, with the Speaker disbursing only P4.3 million.

In its report, the panel emphasized that the operation of SMNI is “considered a threat to national security and stability as it continues to use its platform to disseminate unverified and untruthful statements.”

The report also stated that this “misinformation and misrepresentation” could have serious implications, most especially in “shaping public opinion and thus create potential social and political divide.”

Quiboloy’s general counsel Ferdinand Topacio earlier said there was still a long way to go before the franchise could be revoked.

Topacio told “Storycon” on Cignal TV’s One News that the Senate must come up with a counterpart measure revoking the franchise. After a bicameral conference, the bill must then be signed into law by President Marcos.

Several senators have opposed or expressed reluctance to support even the arrest of Quiboloy for contempt.

Quiboloy may go to SC

In another development, the camp of KOJC founder Quiboloy may challenge before the Supreme Court (SC) the arrest order issued by the Senate against him, citing constitutional limitations of the Congress’ power to conduct hearings.

Elvis Balayan, one of Quiboloy’s counsels, disclosed that there is a “very big possibility” that their camp would raise the issue before the SC under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court.

“I think the constitutional limitations would be the subject of the possible inquiry on the part of the SC. It’s going to be the judiciary who is going to interpret the constitutional limitations of the power of Congress to conduct investigations,” Balayan said in a television interview.

“That is limited by the provisions of the Constitution that the right of affected persons, especially to their life, property and liberty, should be respected,” he added.

The Senate has ordered the arrest and detention of Quiboloy for continuing to skip the chamber’s hearings into his alleged human trafficking and sexual abuse crimes.

Balayan said that while they respect the Senate’s decision in issuing the order, Quiboloy’s camp would “exert all available legal remedies to protect his constitutional rights.”

It is up to the religious leader, however, how he would want to deal with the arrest order.

Balayan explained that Quiboloy’s legal team has discouraged him from attending the Senate hearings as the proceedings are “tantamount to usurpation of judicial authority” and are “tramping upon the bill of rights of the pastor.”

Balayan also claimed that the Senate committee on women, chaired by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, seems to have already deemed Quiboloy guilty of the crimes of which he was being accused.

“The pastor cannot be duped into appearing in a trial by publicity. The Senate is not the dispenser of justice in this country. Only the courts can declare the guilt or innocence of Pastor Quiboloy,” Balayan said.

Hontiveros, however, earlier said that the Senate proceedings were not meant to determine Quiboloy’s guilt or innocence, but rather look at gaps in the laws.

The senator also assured Quiboloy’s camp that his constitutional rights would be respected should he physically attend the hearings, citing precedents where high-profile personalities were invited to the Senate.

Balayan gave assurance that Quiboloy was still in the Philippines and willing to appear “in the proper forum” such as courts.

Criminal charges have been filed before trial courts in Davao City and Pasig City against Quiboloy for the alleged sexual abuse and qualified human trafficking of a then 17-year-old girl in 2011.

The charges filed against the pastor before the Davao City Regional Trial Court were for violations of Section 5(b) and Section 10(a) of Republic Act 7610 or the Special Protection of Children against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, according to the Department of Justice.

The DOJ said the recommended bail for sexual assault was P180,000 while the recommended bail for maltreatment is P80,000.

Meanwhile, a case for violation of Section 4(a) of RA 9208, the Anti-Trafficking Persons Act of 2003, was filed against Quiboloy and others before the Pasig RTC. The charge is non-bailable.

In a statement on March 20, Topacio said they are preparing to “avail of all judicial remedies.”

With this, they “refrain from specifically commenting on the aforementioned issues out of respect to the courts,” urging others “to exhibit some sense of common decency at long last by doing the same.”

Topacio, however, expressed belief that the courts will eventually dismiss the criminal charges against Quiboloy, saying the KOJC leader’s legal team “has done its level best to protect the pastor and shield him from violation of his rights.”

He claimed that “some powerful individuals” are “hell-bent on persecuting” Quiboloy. “It is just a matter of time, for there are occasions where wickedness takes the place of justice, but there will be a time for every case to be settled before God,” Topacio said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ronald dela Rosa yesterday vowed to provide security for Quiboloy, and even negotiate to convince the former spiritual adviser to surrender himself to the Senate, which had issued an arrest order against him for contempt. –  Daphne Galvez, Marc Jayson Cayabyab

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