Philippine Solicitor-General seeks gag order against top TV channel

Press freedom supporters of ABS-CBN protest against the government attempt to close the largest television channel in the Philippines. Image: Rappler video freeze frame

By Felipe F. Salvosa II in Manila

Solicitor-General Jose Calida asked the Supreme Court today to issue a gag order against ABS-CBN, claiming the Philippines’ largest television network was engaging in “propaganda” to sway the justices in the quo warranto case seeking to void its franchise.

Calida filed the “very urgent” motion a week after bringing ABS-CBN to the High Court, accusing the Lopez-led TV network of employing “highly abusive” practices and that its franchise should be forfeited.

The Solicitor-General cited a background video about the quo warranto case by senior reporter Christian Esguerra, and commentaries on the ABS-CBN News website.

READ MORE: Will media freedom survive in the Philippines?

Under the sub judice rule, courts restrict discussions on the merits of pending cases, to avoid prejudgment and influence on the court that could lead to a miscarriage of justice.

Violators may be liable for indirect contempt, based on the Rules of Court.

But there has to be “clear and present danger,” meaning “the evil consequence of the comment must be ‘extremely serious and the degree of imminence extremely high’ before an utterance can be punished,” Associate Justice Noel Tijam wrote in a 2018 decision on a gag order in the case of the quo warranto petition that led to the ousting of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, which Calida also initiated.

“Freedom of speech should not be impaired through the exercise of the power of contempt of court unless there is no doubt that the utterances in question make a serious and imminent threat to the administration of justice. It must constitute an imminent, not merely a likely, threat,” Tijam’s decision stated.

Risk of contempt
Reacting to Calida’s gag order petition, Senator Panfilo Lacson said: “I hope the Supreme Court will not include the Senate or any of its committees in the gag order, if issued as petitioned by the Solicitor-General, in deference to the settled jurisprudence that tackled similar issues in the past.”

“What may be covered, though, are the resource persons who will be invited to shed light on this instant case involving the franchise of ABS-CBN as they are not exempt from the sub judice rule, which covers litigants and witnesses, members of the bar and the public in general,” he said in a statement.

“Thus, they may run the risk of being cited for contempt once they express their opinions that might pose a clear and present danger in the administration of justice by directly influencing the members of the Court in rendering their votes to resolve the pending petition for quo warranto,” Lacson said.

Senator Grace Poe, who was set to conduct an inquiry into the ABS-CBN franchise, said the hearing would push through “according to our constitutional mandate.”

“It is up to the Supreme Court to act on that motion under existing laws and jurisprudence where it recognised the jurisdiction of its co-equal branch,” she said in a statement.

Calida’s quo warranto petition has earned condemnation from media workers, academics and other stakeholders, many of them describing it as an attack on press freedom.

President Rodrigo Duterte had vowed to block the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise, which expires at the end of March 2020.

There are moves in the Senate and House of Representatives to give ABS-CBN a temporary licence to allow it to operate while lawmakers discuss the renewal of its franchise. Some 11,000 jobs are at stake.

The High Court gave ABS-CBN 10 days to comment on Calida’s petition.

Felipe F. Salvosa is coordinator of the journalism programme at the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines and a contributor to Asia Pacific Report.

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