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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Solons pass measure urging NTC to suspend SMNI TV operations

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The House of Representatives on Monday approved House Resolution 1499 urging the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to suspend the operations of a broadcasting network linked to the spiritual advisor of former President Rodrigo Duterte.

Earlier, the House committee on legislative franchises endorsed the measure for plenary action, putting pressure on the NTC to suspend the operations of Swara Sug Media Corp., operating under the business name of Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) over violations of its congressional franchise as outlined in Republic Act 11422.

As an attached agency of the Department of Information and Communications Technology, the NTC serves as the regulator and principal authority for telecommunication services in the country.

Its mandate includes the regulation and supervision of radio and TV broadcast stations, cable television, and pay TV.

Throughout its hearings, the House franchise committee discovered that SMNI breached Section 4 of RA 11422, which pertains to its obligation to the public to refrain from using its stations or facilities for the intentional spread of false information or deliberate misrepresentation to the detriment of the public interest.

The panel, chaired by Parañaque City Rep. Gus Tambunting, cited additional violations outlined in Sections 10, 11, and 12 of RA 11422, specifically focusing on Swara Sug’s failure to report to Congress and seek approval regarding matters of ownership or the transfer of controlling interest.

“It is the duty of the [NTC] to immediately stop the deliberate dissemination of false information that may generate cynicism and mistrust on matters involving public interest,” the resolution, originally introduced by PBA Party-list Rep. Margarita Nograles, reads.

The resolution also pointed out that “telecommunications including broadcast media are essential to the economic development, integrity and security of the country, and as such shall be developed and administered as to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the economic, cultural, social and political fabric of the Philippines.”

The Tambunting panel extensively discussed the resolution, incorporating specific amendments to enhance its recommendations. In the final version of the resolution, Tambunting and 1-RIDER Party-list Rep. Ramon Rodrigo Gutierrez have been included as authors.

New clauses were introduced to highlight critical points, including SMNI’s failure to seek prior approval from Congress for changes in its corporate structure, as mandated by Section 10 of RA 11422.

The resolution also noted SMNI’s failure to report changes in ownership within the stipulated 60-day period, as required by the same section.

During last week’s hearing, it was revealed that Swara Sug neither sought approval nor informed Congress about the transfer of controlling interest from Pastor Apollo Quiboloy—who is wanted in the United States for alleged conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking, fraud, and cash smuggling—to Marlon Acobo through succession.

The resolution also underscored SMNI’s failure to comply with Section 11 of RA 11422, which mandates the offer of at least 30 percent of its outstanding stock to the public. This obligation has allegedly been neglected since the renewal of its franchise.

The resolution emphasized that the requirements in Sections 10 and 11 are distinct from the annual report, clarifying that the mere inclusion of ownership changes in the annual report does not fulfill the compliance requirements of the aforementioned sections.

The franchise panel inquiry was initiated following Deputy Majority Leader and Quezon Rep. David Suarez’s privileged speech, addressing purported fake news, baseless red-tagging, and misinformation surrounding Speaker Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez’s alleged P1.8 billion travel expenses.

House officials debunked this claim, presenting official records indicating a total House travel expense of P39.6 million from January to October, with the Office of the Speaker disbursing only P4.3 million.

In the initial hearing, Jeffrey Celiz, a host on SMNI’s “Laban Kasama ng Bayan” program, acknowledged that the information source regarding the incorrect P1.8 billion travel expenses he mentioned during the live broadcast was inaccurate and had not been validated.

“With the admission that the source of information was wrong and that the information was not vetted, in addition to the various complaints filed against the SMNI for fake news peddling and red-tagging, it is clear that SMNI violated its responsibility to the public not to use its stations or facilities for the deliberate dissemination of false information or willful misrepresentation to the detriment of the public interest,” the resolution stated.

The franchise committee is also tackling resolutions from the Makabayan bloc condemning the dissemination of fake news, baseless red-tagging of individuals, groups, and organizations, as well as grave threats against ACT Teachers Party-list Rep. France Castro made by the former President during an SMNI broadcast.

Meanwhile, Tambunting said Celiz, who has been detained for contempt over his refusal to identify the source of his false claim that Romualdez spent P1.8 billion on travel, has changed his mind.

“I asked [him], if you are willing to divulge the person (source) to me because they did not want to say it in an executive session, and a name was given. There is [indeed] a source,” Tambunting said.

“I will discuss the source with the committee [members], and the Speaker and the Senate president. We have to validate [what was told to me]. [He said it was] one source,” he added.

Tambunting said the source Celiz identified was a male.

He added that Celiz’s decision to name his source would not automatically get him out of House detention.

Celiz and another detained SMNI host, Lorraine Marie Badoy, have filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking their release from House detention.

Meanwhile, lawmakers raised serious concerns about the reported collaboration between SMNI and China Global Television Network (CGTN), citing potential implications for information dissemination in light of China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

Legislators led by Navotas Rep. Toby Tiangco said the partnership could influence the narrative and raise questions about the reliability and independence of information provided by SMNI, given CGTN’s connection to the Chinese government.

These concerns took center stage during the third hearing of the House committee on legislative franchises, which delved into alleged violations of the congressional franchise granted to Swara Sug Media Corp., operating as SMNI.

In the hearing, Tiangco identified CGTN as one of the three branches of the state-run China Media Group.

Tiangco noted the fact that CGTN is owned by the Chinese government, prompting concerns about the potential consequences of such collaboration, especially in the context of China’s narrative on the WPS.

SMNI legal counsel Mark Tolentino said, however, that the agreement with CGTN is still in the negotiation phase, with no final written agreement as of yet. He also said any final agreement would adhere to Philippine laws.

Quezon Rep. David Suarez noted the tendency of China to distort the narrative on WPS, citing a Chinese news outlet’s portrayal suggesting that Filipinos have been aggressive in the WPS.

“They turned the story upside down, their story is different from what really happened to the Filipinos,” Suarez said in Filipino.

Kabataan Rep. Raoul Manuel, meanwhile, raised questions about the removal of the webpage containing information about the SMNI-CGTN collaboration, expressing suspicions over its disappearance.

Manuel said the collaboration was disclosed on the social networking service X in July this year. However, when he tried to access the corresponding news item through a link provided in the tweet, he was met with an error message.

Cristina San Pedro, a member of the SMNI board of directors, suggested that the vanished news item could be linked to the hosting of videos on YouTube, which have faced restrictions.

Expressing dissatisfaction with this explanation, Manuel asserted his belief that the news item was intentionally removed by SMNI, especially after lawmakers initiated inquiries about the SMNI-CGTN partnership in previous hearings.

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