A PETITION was filed yesterday before the Supreme Court (SC) seeking the immediate release of SMNI program anchors Lorraine Badoy and Jeffrey “Ka Eric” Celiz who were earlier cited in contempt and ordered detained by lawmakers for allegedly airing a wrong information on the travel expenses of House Speaker Martin Romualdez.
Badoy and Celiz through human rights lawyer Herminio “Harry” Roque specifically filed a petition for the issuance of a writ of certiorari coupled with a petition for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus seeking the their release from detention on or before December 15, 2023, “regardless of the merits of the case.”
The petitioners also urged the Court to declare that respondent House of Representatives Committee on Legislative and Franchises and House sergeant-at-arms Napoleon Taas acted with grave abuse of discretion in citing them in contempt and in ordering their detention.
Roque said the petitioners also asked the Court to declare that the respondents acted with grave abuse of discretion in punishing them for the comments that they made in their television program, which was tantamount to a violation of their right to freedom of expression and of the press.
Likewise, Roque sought the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus declaring that there is no legal basis for the petitioners’ detention and ordering their immediate release.
A writ of habeas corpus “is a writ directed to a person detaining another, commanding the former to produce the body of the latter at a designated time and place.”
It extends “to all cases of illegal and arbitrary detention by which any person is deprived of his liberty….”
The writ of habeas corpus was sought by Rogilda Celiz and Walter Partosa, spouses of the detained SMNI hosts.
It can be recalled that on December 5, 2023, the respondent committee cited both Badoy and Celiz in contempt for allegedly disrespecting the committee members when they lied in their answers to the committee’s questions.
The hearing was a congressional inquiry into alleged violations by SMNI of its legislative franchise to operate radio and/or television broadcast stations, which was granted under Republic Act No. 11422.
The supposed violations consist of comments made by the petitioners during an episode of Laban Kasama Ang Bayan that aired on November 27, 2023, about an information that they received on the alleged excessive expenses incurred by Romualdez during his official travel to foreign countries amounting to P1.8 billion.
During the congressional inquiry, petitioners, particularly Celiz, were being forced to reveal the identity of the source of their information on Romualdez’ travel expenses.
Celiz, however, invoked Republic Act No. 53 or the Sotto Law (Shield Law) in refusing to disclose the source of his information.
The Sotto Law exempts publishers, editors, or reporters from revealing their news source or information obtained in confidence. In 2019, then President Rodrigo Duterte signed Republic Act 11458 which amends R.A. 53.
The new law expands protection to “any publisher, owner, or duly recognized or accredited journalist, writer, reporter, contributor, opinion writer, editor, columnist, manager, media practitioner involved in the writing, editing, production, and dissemination of news for mass circulation, of any print, broadcast, wire service organization, or electronic mass media including cable tv and its variants.”
“Accordingly, the Petitioners respectfully submit that they are protected by the Shield Law from disclosing their sources because they are “duly recognized or accredited” by SMNI, a media network that regularly broadcasts news and commentaries,” Roque said.
“It will take a finding by a court, or the Senate, or the House of Representatives that such disclosure is required by national security—which was absent during the December 5, 2023 hearing—before the petitioners may be compelled to disclose their sources.,” he pointed out.
Roque also argued the SC has the power and duty to inquire into the legal basis of the detention of the petitioners .
“In this case, the petitioners are respectfully pleading for the Honorable Supreme Court to exercise its power and duty to defend their right to liberty against the illegal and vindictive actions of the respondents committee,” he said.
He added that direct resort to the SC of the petitioners is warranted as the petition involves constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Roque noted that in Diocese of Bacolod vs. Comelec, the SC held that a direct to the Court is justified when there are genuine issues of constitutionality that need to be addressed at the most immediate time.
“This case involves the same constitutional right to freedom of expression. The Petitioners were summoned to the congressional hearing, and are now being detained at the Batasan Complex, because of comments that they made in their TV show Laban Kasama Ang Bayan that aired over SMNI,” the petition read.
Roquealso cited the case of Linconn Uy Ong vs. Senate where the SC recently stressed the limitations on the power of the Legislative Branch to conduct congressional inquiries, and to cite in contempt.
While the SC reaffirmed the power of the Legislative Branch to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation and to cite in contempt, Roque pointed out that the ruling emphasized the requirement that the rights of the persons appearing in such inquiries shall be respected, in particular their right to due process as enshrined in Sections 1 and 2, Article III of the Constitution.
The Court also stressed that Congress’ power of legislative investigation is subject to three limitations: (1) the inquiry must be in “aid of legislation”; (2) the inquiry must be conducted in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure; and (3) the rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected. Further, where there is factual basis for contempt, the resource person’s detention should only last until the termination of the legislative inquiry.
“The petitioners were cited in contempt, and are now being detained, ostensibly for their allegedly disrespectful answers and their refusal to reveal the source of their information. But those were just grounds that the Committee conveniently found during the course of the proceedings—and failed to explain and substantiate to the petitioners—in order to punish the petitioners for their comments,” Roque said.
“The Committee members were too eager to punish the petitioners for their comments that the members failed to observe their own rules and procedures, and failed to accord the petitioners their right to due process,” he added.
Furthermore, Roque claimed that the respondent committee violated Section 11 of the House Rules of Procedure Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation which requires 2/3 of the members present before citing any person for contempt.
He also maintained that the comments made by the petitioners in their TV program are considered privileged and “fall within the ambit of freedom of the press.”
Roque cited the report to the UN Human Rights Council submitted by then Special Rapport for Free Expression Frank la Rue which defined journalist as “individuals who observe and describe events, document and analyze events, statements, policies, and any propositions that can affect society, with the purpose of systematizing such information and gathering of facts and analyses to inform sectors of society or society as a whole.”
It added that “a definition of journalists includes all media workers and support staff, as well as community media workers and so-called ‘citizen journalists’ when they momentarily play that role…”
Furthermore, the petition noted that In Nova Communications Inc. vs. Angelina Goloy, et al, the Supreme Court restated the criteria that make certain communications privileged.
Based on the ruling, Roque said “a privileged communication may be classified as either absolutely privileged or qualifiedly privileged.”
The absolutely privileged communications, according to Roque, “are not actionable even if the same was made with malice, such as the statements made by members of Congress in the discharge of their duties for any speech or debate during their session or in any committee thereof, official communications made by public officers in the performance of their duties, allegations or statements made by the parties or their counsel in their pleadings or during the hearing, as well as the answers of the witnesses to questions propounded to them. “
The qualifiedly privileged communications, on the other hand, “are those which contain defamatory imputations but which are not actionable unless found to have been made without good intention or justifiable motive, and to which “private communications” and “fair and true report without any comments or remarks” belong.
Roque also cited the case of Philippine Daily Inquirer Inc. vs. Donna Cueto, et al., and Borjal vs. court of Appeals, which expanded the coverage of privilege communications.
He said the Court reiterated that “fair commentaries on matters of public interest are privileged and constitute a valid defense in action for libel or slander.”
“Based on the above, the petitioners respectfully reassert the privileged nature of the comments that they made in their TV program for being either fair journalistic reports, or fair comments, on matters of public interest. The subject of those comments were the expenses that are being incurred by Speaker Romualdez, which are allegedly excessive according to the source who gave the information to Petitioner Celiz,” the petitioner stated.