Abuse of discretion

The broader view - Harry Roque - The Philippine Star

In today’s political scene, there appears to be a sacred cow that is more golden than the highest official of our land. Similarly, some lawmakers are either forgetful or ignorant of our fundamental domestic laws. And yet, any criticism thrown their way is being dealt with an immediate reprisal, regardless if the reprisal is proportional or not.

The case of the recently freed anchors of Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) has revealed the inadequacies and excesses of the institution related to congressional inquiries. Currently, two separate House Resolutions have called for the suspension or revocation of the SMNI franchise. The TV station happens to be strongly allied with the Duterte family. Last year, it provided fair and ample coverage to the presidential run of Bongbong Marcos Jr. The President only participated in a single televised debate – the one hosted by SMNI.

At the center of the issue is Speaker Martin Romualdez, who has been feuding with the Dutertes. While his survey rating in the recent Tangere presidential survey was dismal, the Speaker remains a viable presidentiable in the 2028 election. One of the detained broadcasters, Ka Eric Celiz, questioned Martin’s international travel expenses. To my knowledge, it is the first time that the Lower House investigated and punished media practitioners for daring to question the budget of the Speaker. In comparison, PBBM has been subjected to the worst kinds of hate remarks by vloggers but has not taken any action to deplatform his vilifiers.

Right to be heard

When we filed the writ of habeas corpus and certiorari before the Supreme Court for the illegal detention of Ka Eric and Dr. Lorraine Badoy last Monday, we expected that the Lower House would immediately release the broadcasters. I stood behind the respective spouses of Lorraine and Eric when they were finally freed after seven days. I am relieved that my fellow SMNI broadcasters survived the entire ordeal, including a hunger protest.

The committee on legislative franchise did not give the broadcasters the opportunity to argue their case before being punished with detention. It violated their right to be heard. Therefore, I contend that there was grave abuse of discretion amounting to a lack of jurisdiction on the committee’s part. The members should have strictly conducted the hearing in aid of legislation. They should not have turned the legitimate exercise into a virtual witch hunt on persons who do not see the Speaker or any elected official as beyond public reproach or questioning.

I am afraid that the highly questionable actuation of the Lower House will discourage information sources or whistle-blowers from sharing crucial information with the media. I also hope that no practitioner will suffer the same fate.

Vindictive actions

In our pleading, we asked the High Court to exercise its power and duty to defend Celiz and Badoy against the illegal and vindictive actions of the committee. Notwithstanding the profuse apologies from Celiz for not divulging his news source because it is a protected right under Republic Act 53 (as amended by RA 11458) and the candid response from Badoy, the committee still cited them for contempt.

According to the Sotto Law, “Without prejudice to his liability under civil and criminal laws, any publisher, owner or duly recognized or accredited journalist, writer, reporter, contributor, opinion writer, editor, columnist, manager, media practitioner involved in the writing, editing, production and dissemination of news for mass circulation of any print, broadcast, wire service organization or electronic mass media, including cable TV and its variants, cannot be compelled to reveal the source of any news item, report or information appearing or being reported or disseminated through said media, which was related in confidence to the above-mentioned media practitioners unless the court or the House of Representatives or the Senate or any committee of Congress finds that such revelation is demanded by the security of the State.”

We argued that in the eagerness of committee members to punish my clients, they denied Lorraine and Eric of their right to due process of law. Again, the members failed to explain and substantiate the grounds for the punitive action to Celiz and Badoy. In our view, the Court should strike down the grave and blatant abuse of discretion committed by the franchise committee. No individual or institution should be allowed to toy with the civil liberties of any Filipino.

In terms of press freedom, the action committed by the committee is tantamount to subsequent punishment. In the words of my favorite jurist, the late Antonio Nachura: “(Freedom from subsequent punishment) prohibits the imposition of any sanction or penalty for the speech or publication after its occurrence” (Chavez vs. Gonzales).

Ruling on petition

So, what will happen to the cases? I hope the Supreme Court would still rule on our petitions in view of its recent decision on the Ong vs. Senate of the Philippines related to the Pharmally scandal. It is high time that the Court should rule whether the Sotto Law covers all congressional investigations.

I also urge the Lower House membership to read the decision penned by Justice Henri Inting on the grave abuse of discretion committed by a Senate committee vis-à-vis the consolidated cases of Linconn Ong and Michael Yang.

“…The moot and academic principle does not automatically dissuade the courts from resolving a case, under the following instances: (a) there is a grave violation of the Constitution; (b) the situation is of exceptional character and paramount public interest is involved; (c) the constitutional issue raised requires formulation of controlling principles to guide the bench, the bar and the public; and (d) the case is capable of repetition yet evading review.”

“It bears underscoring that the purpose of the committee’s proceedings is to conduct an inquiry or investigation to aid the Senate in crafting relevant legislation, and not to conduct a trial or make an adjudication. Legislative inquiries do not share the same goals as the criminal trial process, and ‘cannot be punitive in the sense that they cannot result in legally binding deprivation of a person’s life, liberty or property.’ Thus, punishment for legislative contempt, albeit sui generis in character, must similarly observe the minimum requirements of due process.”

“...The Order dated September 10, 2021, citing petitioners Linconn Uy Ong and Michael Yang Hong Ming in contempt of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee and directing their arrest, is NULLIFIED for having been issued with grave abuse of discretion.”

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