MANILA – The Office of the Speaker's travel expenses for foreign trips amounted to PHP4.3 million from January to October 2023, according to an official of the House of Representatives.
During the hearing of the House Committee on Legislative Franchises on Thursday, House Secretary General Reginald Velasco cited the chamber's financial reports on foreign travel-related expenses to dispute the claims of one of the hosts of Sonshine Media Network Inc. (SMNI) that Speaker Martin Romualdez has a PHP1.8-billion travel fund.
"For the Office of the Speaker, these are the staff members of the Speaker who accompany him in all his foreign trips, the total expenses of the Office of the Speaker from January to October this year is PHP4,347,712,” Velasco said.
Velasco, meanwhile, noted that the total travel expenses incurred by all other lawmakers and the House Secretariat for the same period totaled PHP35.25 million.
“The total for all, Office of the Speaker, and the House secretariat, and members of the Congress, who go on official trips (is) PHP39,605,123.61,” Velasco said.
Committee chairperson and Paranaque Rep. Gus Tambunting stressed that news reporting should be "fair and accurate".
"News reporting is a powerful medium that provides the public of crucial and vital information on current events, weather, government workings, and other significant reports that affect the daily lives of the citizenry. It can influence people and may generate public opinion, cynicism and mistrust on matters involving public interest," Tambunting said.
While free speech and press freedom are constitutional rights, the allocation of TV and radio frequencies is not a guaranteed right, Tambunting said.
He emphasized that Congress has the authority to grant, amend, suspend, or revoke legislative franchises.
He said SMNI's franchise requires the broadcast station not to deliberately disseminate false information as stipulated under Section 4 of Republic Act 11422.
"As there are alleged violations on the franchise grant, the committee is well within its mandate to look into this matter and can invoke its authority," Tambunting said.
Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel asked why SMNI should not be held liable for violating Section 4 of its legislative franchise, arguing that SMNI host's claim of the Speaker's PHP1.8-billion travel fund is a far cry from the PHP39 million in travel costs the House has incurred so far this year.
Mark Tolentino, legal counsel of the company, said the SMNI hosts were just posing a question during the program and not accusing Romualdez of spending PHP1.8 billion on foreign trips.
"Gumagawa po kami investigation, internal investigation kung may nangyari ba talagang statement about the PHP1.8 billion (We are conducting an internal investigation if there was really a statement about the PHP1.8 billion), because based on our initial investigation there was none it was just a question," Tolentino said.
Tolentino also noted that there is a disclaimer in every program of SMNI that "any statement made by the anchor guest is not the official stand" of the broadcast station.
"There was no deliberate false information. I'd like to invoke the jurisprudence of the Philippine Supreme Court about freedom of press and freedom expression," Tolentino said.
He also said under the Civil Code, there is a presumption of good faith and the burden of proving that SMNI breached its legislative franchise should rest with the accuser.
"Because we are presumed innocent. We are presumed doing within the bounds of the law," Tolentino said. (PNA)