By Daniel Llanto

Lawmakers slammed the quo warranto petition filed by government lawyers against broadcasting giant ABS-CBN as an assault on press freedom and to the time-honored separation of powers of the legislature and the judiciary.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, who pushed for ABS-CBN franchise renewal in the House of Representatives, said the move of Solicitor Gen. Jose Calida of filing the quo warranto case on February 10 is an “assault to constitutional press freedom and separation of powers of the judiciary and the legislature.”

Deputy House Speaker Johnny Pimentel from Surigao del Sur called the quo warranto petition a “questionable and alarming development.”

In the petition, the Solicitor General asked the Supreme Court to revoke the legislative franchise of ABS-CBN and its communications arm ABS-CBN Convergence Inc. Government lawyers accused the television network of “unlawfully exercising their legislative franchises.”

According to Rule 66 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, Calida said the solicitor general can file a quo warranto (Latin for “by what authority”) against “a person who usurps, intrudes into, or unlawfully holds or exercises a public office, position or franchise.”

In 2018, Calida filed a quo warranto petition against former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno that eventually led to her removal from office.

The petition against ABS-CBN was filed as the House of Representatives continues to sit on the bills that seek to renew the network’s franchise. ABS-CBN’s legislative franchises expire by the end of next month.

“We want to put an end to what we discovered to be highly abusive practices of ABS-CBN benefitting a greedy few at the expense of millions of its loyal subscribers. These practices have gone unnoticed or were disregarded for years,” Calida said.

Among these practices, according to Calida, is foreign investment which was the same offense that prompted government lawyers to put the heat on Rappler’s on-line news group. He pointed to ABS-CBN’s “elaborately crafted corporate veil” which allegedly allows foreign investors take part in the ownership of the network.

The National Union of People’s Lawyers said: “Calida’s showcase of power exposes this government’s utter disrespect of the people’s right to a free and independent press, and its unqualified intolerance to dissent, disapproval of any diversion from the official line and aversion to critical yet constructive views, opinions and ideas.”

Congressman Pimentel said, “It is only Congress that has the power to grant or cancel franchises. In this case, the OSG has already pre-empted the action to be taken by Congress.” With the filing of the quo warranto case, he added, this can have a chilling effect, if the hearings were held at all.

Agusan del Norte Rep. Lawrence Fortun hoped that the House committee on legislative franchises does not use this as a justification not to proceed with the hearing of the network’s application for renewal. “The committee may not hear the franchise renewal bills at all saying there’s a pending matter in the Supreme Court related to the validity of ABS-CBN’s current franchise,” Fortun added.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said up to 11,000 workers, who depend on ABS-CBN and its subsidiaries or sister companies for their bread and butter, stand to lose their jobs or be indirectly dislocated once the company’s franchise is denied.

After describing the Calida petition as “unwarranted and misplaced,” Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman called on the House panel concerned “not to temporize its action on the pending bills proposing the extension of ABS-CBN franchise “because it must maintain its independence from the executive and judicial departments.”

Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate public services committee, indicated that all is not lost for ABS-CBN as her panel intends to tackle the company’s franchise renewal despite the quo warranto petition.

“The Senate’s jurisdiction over franchises remains despite the existence of the petition,” Poe said.