Editorial Notes

Solicitor General Jose Calida's signature ploy to deal with ABS-CBN: Inquirer

In its editorial, the Inquirer says that the fact that many lawmakers would defy President Duterte and take ABS-CBN's side is probably the reason Solicitor General Jose Calida lodged the matter directly with the Supreme Court.

A sign about press freedom is displayed during a protest against moves to shutdown ABS-CBN network, in Quezon City, east of Manila, Philippines, on Feb 10, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Despite President Duterte's threats and harangues against ABS-CBN and the renewal of its franchise, there has been, in fact, growing bipartisan support in Congress for the TV network's bid.

Opposition lawmakers such as Albay Representative Edcel Lagman and the Makabayan bloc are batting for the renewal, while the ranks of administration allies who have expressed support for it include Cagayan de Oro City Representative Rufus Rodriguez, Mindoro Oriental Representative Doy Leachon, Laguna Representative Sol Aragones (a former ABS-CBN reporter), Albay Representative Joey Salceda, Mindoro Occidental Representative Josephine Ramirez-Sato, Parañaque City Representative Joy Myra Tambunting, Nueva Ecija Representative Micaela Violago, PBA party list Representative Jericho Nograles, and the four Deputy Speakers - Vilma Santos, Rose Marie "Baby" Arenas, Johnny Pimentel, and Aurelio Gonzales.

That many administration lawmakers would dare defy the President and take ABS-CBN's side, expressed in the 11 Bills for its franchise renewal filed in the House, is probably the reason Solicitor General Jose Calida was spooked at the idea of taking chances on Congress, and opted instead to try to short-circuit the process by lodging the matter directly with the Supreme Court.

On Monday (Feb 10), Mr Calida filed a quo warranto petition with the high court seeking to nullify ABS-CBN's franchise because of what he described as "highly abusive practices of ABS-CBN benefiting a greedy few at the expense of millions of its loyal subscribers. These practices have gone unnoticed or were disregarded for years."

Among the anomalous practices Mr Calida mentions is that the TV network is supposedly operating under some form of foreign ownership through Philippine Depositary Receipts.

"Like Rappler, ABS-CBN had issued Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDR) through ABS-CBN Holdings Corporation to foreigners, in violation of the foreign ownership restriction on mass media in the Constitution."

The charge that ABS-CBN, a network that has built arguably the biggest and most influential footprint in the Filipino media and pop culture landscape, is "foreign-owned" would strike many as hilarious, especially when paired with the irony that this administration, the most in thrall to a foreign power in decades and which has also pushed to do away with the Constitution's limits on foreign ownership of businesses, is deploying such a claim.

And the Supreme Court may not even be the proper venue to hear the accusation; according to law dean Tony La Viña, questions about PDRs and possible foreign ownership should be brought before the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Another lawyer, Manuel Laserna Jr, pointed out in a Facebook post that this and other "allegations of fact" in Mr Calida's suit - that ABS-CBN is operating a pay-per-view channel supposedly without approval by the National Telecommunications Commission, that the company "allegedly failed to publicly offer any of its outstanding capital stock to any securities exchange within the Philippines within five years from the start of its operations," etc. - needed to be heard first through a "full-blown" trial, not at the Supreme Court which "is NOT a trier of facts," but at the proper regional trial court.

Both Mr Laserna and Mr La Vina think the proper response is for the Supreme Court to dismiss Mr Calida's motion outright - "on the basis," said Mr La Viña, "that it is the wrong first venue to deal with these issues."

Mr Calida, of course, is hoping his past "triumphs," as it were, using the quo warranto notion and PDR rules against perceived administration enemies, would yield fruit yet again.

This time, he's combined the two novel approaches - the quo warranto used to oust Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno by bypassing a constitutionally mandated impeachment trial in the Senate, and the PDR grounds employed as the linchpin of the campaign to try to shut down online media company Rappler - into a mutant weapon, a Frankenstein argument designed to preempt Congress and eliminate any possibility of ABS-CBN being given the chance to present its case before legislators, who have the sole jurisdiction to deliberate on and grant franchises, and before the Filipino public.

It's a signature Mr Calida ploy that, as in the Rappler and Sereno cases, dutifully serves the imperious bent of MrCalida's boss to utilise government power to settle scores with critical, independent voices.

And yet, incredibly, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo insists the President has nothing to do with the Solicitor General's moves ("Ang Pangulo hindi nakikialam doon").

And Mr Calida himself, in perfect poker face while refusing to answer questions from reporters, declared: "Walang politics ito, walang politics."

No untruer words have been said - until, of course, the next disclaimer from this administration.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.

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