SMNI vs Romualdez and House: A case against political control of media franchise

THE CONGRESSIONAL fuss over offenses of the Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) hosts is politics at work and little else. The probe and the penalties imposed on Jeffrey Celis and Lorraine Badoy have little to do with the values of civic discourse. The driving concern here was the defense of Martin Romualdez, or the show of such defense and support. 

Ironically, the current Speaker of the House, presidential cousin that he is, carries enough political weight, enough heft to fend off opposition to his leadership and the Palace where his cousin presides. As the case demonstrates quite dramatically. 

Unfortunately, most media reports were skittish about surfacing this political context, picking up instead every privileged utterance about the harm of “fake news” and the defamation of Romualdez’ character. 

Media reports on the matter did not take up all the other past instances when the same network had served as a platform for “fake news” which did not provoke, then, any defense from legislators because these were done to favor the ruling coalition. With the emergence of political factions however, the media has become a battleground for political factions. 

Indeed, public officials should be concerned about the quality of public discourse. The shouting of insults and the use of expletives counter civil exchange and debate. In this case, erroneous charges provoked more legislative action. 

The two broadcasters are known political propagandists who have been rabid in red-tagging civil society organizations and individuals including media groups and journalists. Badoy actively supported Duterte’s campaign. Celiz claims to be a former member of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). Duterte’s National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) empowered the duo who continued their red-tagging even when they were no longer working with the Task Force. 

SMNI provided platforms to propaganda to demean and diminish the political opposition identified with forces of EDSA 1986, breaking down what remained of these political groups. It is now seen mainly as a channel for the former president to talk about politics, to respond to critics and comments, including his plan to run for the senate. 

This is not the first time this media company and the likes of Celiz and Badoy have been engaged in false propaganda. But their targets have since changed; as political tides have also made them vulnerable.

The House Committee on Legislative Franchises brought them low, probing and questioning the two about the allegations of Romualdez’ overspending on travel, detaining the two in House custody for seven days and released only for “humanitarian” reasons. 

The actions done by the lawmakers should send chills down libertarian spines. Our lawmakers have now shown themselves ready to punish opposing views, critical reporting and commentary; alas to penalize mistakes and errors for all engaged in media. Little was heard about these penalties being unconstitutional. Anthony Lewis in his “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment” traces cases to demonstrate the need to protect even errors of free speech from punishment as these impose prior restraint. Quite like the fear instilled by Duterte’s punitive drug war, these actions warn all that they could be the next to be declared as “in contempt” for scrutinizing congressional conduct.

This political mode counters the protection of free speech and press freedom doctrines which protect even errors in coverage, as these are inevitable in all human activities. Politically driven, the case exhibits selectivity of official protection for free speech rights, directly opposed to the spirit and letter of first amendment that protects equally, the speech expressive of our principles as well as the speech we disagree with, even with “speech we hate.” 

Congress has set its discussion of SMNI’s franchise for January next year. To prepare, journalists should review the rationalization of the franchise cancellation of ABS-CBN in 2020 when even evidence from the files of the agencies concerned countered the charges, including files from the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR). But none of these could force politicians to renew a franchise they had held for the last 50 years. 

Media will take sides on an issue and they are advised to do so based on facts and fair argument. For journalists, the message is clear, there are natural advocacies that are embedded in our value system. And news coverage should reflect these principles. 

While vested interests exert influence over media owners, the constitution proscribes government encroachment into media independence. Unfortunately, the continued control of Congress over media franchise betrays this constitutional mandate. This latest case has different players, but it demonstrates quite effectively the wisdom of protecting the media from politicians. In most democracies, independent commissions decide franchise matters.  

At the very least, let’s understand what is happening for what it is. The politicians objecting to Celiz and Badoy may invoke values of civic discourse and media ethics. But their concern is really about protecting Romualdez. 

In turn, journalists should continue to promote in their coverage public awareness of the idea that all public officials, including the president, are subject to public scrutiny, aided by media reports that surface issues and developments that people should know about. No elected or appointed official can be exempt from constant and consistent media watch, and journalists in the age of the Internet have more platforms where they can be watchdogs for the people, with or without a franchise.