What exactly is the issue? The ABS-CBN 25-year broadcasting franchise is set to expire on March 30, 2020, and the TV giant has long applied for its renewal. Eleven bills are pending in Congress on this and two other allied franchises, but Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano says the House does not have the time to act on any of them. Let us just focus on the broadcasting franchise. President Rodrigo Duterte wants the franchise terminated before it expires, and Solicitor General Calida has filed a quo warranto petition before the Supreme Court to declare the franchise null and void from the very beginning.

This is the same mechanism Calida used in 2018 to unseat Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno for her alleged failure to declare all her possessions upon her appointment in 2012, after President B. S. Aquino 3rd bribed the senator-judges on the Senate impeachment court to convict and remove Chief Justice Renato Corona on a non-impeachable offense. Sereno was not a very popular magistrate, but under the Constitution SC justices may be removed only upon impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes or betrayal of public trust.

The Supreme Court has no part in this, it is the House of Representatives that impeaches, and the Senate that tries and decides all impeachment cases. But the Court assumed jurisdiction, and there was no higher forum to which the aggrieved party could appeal its decision.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo says DU30 has nothing to do with Calida’s current petition. This is a completely worthless claim in the face of DU30’s public statement, quoted repeatedly on TV, that he does not see the franchise getting renewed after March 30. In the story of Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, all King Henry II of England had to do was to ask, “will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and four knights traveled from Normandy to Canterbury to murder Becket inside his cathedral.

Does ABS-CBN deserve a renewal? To me, that depends on Congress, which has the sole power to grant franchises, not on the Supreme Court, which is a trier of law, not of facts, and normally rules on important constitutional questions.

What exactly are the sins of ABS-CBN? Against whom has it sinned? Against the terms of its franchise, against the public it serves, or against President DU30? The public has a right to know this. This has to be brought to the appropriate body for appropriate action. There are specific sanctions against specific offenses. The punishment must be commensurate to the offense. If the offense is so grave as to deserve non-renewal of its franchise, there should probably be a recommendation from the National Telecommunications Commission and it should figure in the public service committee discussions so that the two sides could be heard and Congress can decide, wisely and fairly, whether the franchise should be renewed or not.

DU30 cannot afford to weaponize the law against the free press in general or ABS-CBN in particular to give bent to any personal motive. His personal grudges against individuals and institutions cannot be the basis of a State policy on anything imbued with the public interest. The media is/are a vital institution and an important help in governing a free society. DU30 can use a more rational and commodious media policy which could help define his political legacy when he leaves the presidency. Like all of us, he must learn from history.

In 1972, when Marcos proclaimed martial law in order to combat the raging communist insurgency, the government closed down ABS-CBN and the rest of the media. At the time I was the minister of information and had to defend the action of the State as a necessary component of martial law, and by assuring the affected parties it was a temporary emergency measure. Indeed, it was, and eventually the media were allowed to resume operations. But did that interregnum benefit the State more than it cost us our democratic equilibrium? That was the ultimate question we had to answer to this very day.

My own sense is that we were not fully prepared to bear the consequence. As information minister, I had to spend all of my waking hours working for a speedy return of the free press and all that it implies. But after more than 50 years not all the wounds have healed, and it makes no sense at all to repeat the past. We all need to listen, DU30 most of all, to the words of George Santayana who said those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

I think it is more than enough that within one short lifetime, the quo warranto petition has been used, outside the Constitution, to oust a Supreme Court chief justice, no matter how unworthy, instead of letting Congress impeach and remove her from office. It would be truly tragic if it were used again to silence one of the few remaining avenues of civil discourse and free speech in our midst. Indeed, Talleyrand, the great French diplomat, would probably have called this move to use Calida to go after ABS-CBN for whatever offenses it might have committed against DU30—- “worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”