Promulgated last February 4, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Resolution No. 8758, which sets down the implementing rules and regulations of the long-dormant Republic Act No. 9006, also known as the Fair Election Act, has triggered a veritable firestorm of protests, primarily because of Section 36, which is quoted in full below:
Any mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter, on-air correspondent, or personality who is a candidate for any elective public office, or is a campaign volunteer for or employed or retained in any capacity by any candidate, political party, or party-list group, or organization, and/or coalition thereof, shall be deemed resigned, if so required by their employer, or shall take a leave of absence from his/her work as such during the campaign period; Provided, that after he has filed his certificate of candidacy but before the campaign period, it shall be his obligation not to use his media work for premature election campaign or partisan political activity: Provided, finally, that any media practitioner who is an official of a political party or a member of the campaign staff of a candidate, political party, or party-list group, organization, and/or coalition thereof, shall not use his/her time or space to favor any candidate, political party, or party-list group, organization, and/or coalition thereof;
As sociologist Randy David pointed out in his Philippine Daily Inquirer column, the law, whatever its merits, is highly ambiguous, as “it is trying to cover in one paragraph a broad range of individuals and activities that are qualitatively different from one another“. How, for instance, is “campaign volunteer” to be defined? What about “mass media personality”? Does the law apply both to talents and to regular employees (the position taken by GMA-7), or just regular employees (the interpretation favored by ABS-CBN)? (More details on the reactions of the TV networks and individual celebrities may be found here.)
Compounding the confusion is the lack of consensus among the Comelec commissioners themselves, as revealed in the Philippine Star: Rene Sarmiento said that the law generally applies to politicians who are themselves involved in showbiz, Gregorio Larrazabal claimed that a close examination of the law would show that media personalities are not actually required to take a leave, and Nicodemo Ferrer declared that the poll body would come up with (additional?) rules for the purpose of clarification.
Amid this morass of conflicting opinions, it is of interest to note that, among the various political camps, the ruling party, Lakas-Kampi CMD, is alone in its approval of the Comelec resolution. Prospero Pichay, the campaign manager for the senatorial candidates of the administration, stated that the playing field would now be level as far as television was concerned, while Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) secretary Ronaldo Puno took it one step further, saying that such a leveling would favor Gilbert Teodoro, who has been faring miserably in the presidential race, if the periodic surveys of the electorate are any indication.
It is undeniable that Teodoro has few celebrity endorsers—a consequence of the copyright infringement brouhaha involving former Rivermaya front-man Rico Blanco, perhaps?—but Pichay, Puno, and their ilk would do well to remember that their candidate enjoys the signal privilege of being practically endorsed by a nationally distributed broadsheet, The Manila Times, in its editorials. This means that the administration candidate is not supported merely by a columnist or two, which is the case for other candidates, but by an entire publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of readers daily.
As early as October of last year, in the wake of Ondoy, the Times hailed Teodoro, then secretary of the Department of National Defense (DND) and head of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), for “an excellent job coordinating the rescue and relief efforts”, describing the disaster as a test that Teodoro passed “with grace and humility”. (I have shown elsewhere—and, to my mind, very convincingly—how preposterous such claims are.)
In December, the newspaper once more sung the praises of Teodoro:
Teodoro is a welcome presence in the political arena. Humble and self effacing, he speaks in measured and moderate tones. Foregoing bombast and oratory, he delivers well-organized, well-reasoned thoughts and statements on the issues. He refuses to stoop to personalities and mudslinging, preferring to speak on the issues, policies and the nitty-gritty of good governance.
If we read his mind, Teodoro could become the first bipartisan president in Philippine history. He could walk across the aisles to enlist the best minds in the opposition to join his government. He will cast a wider net to recruit nonparty members who share his core values and passion for public service.
Teodoro could also reach out to promising young men, women, ethnic leaders and reformed communists to join his government. He might make history by appointing naturalized Filipinos as key Palace aides. A Cabinet, after all, must be a mirror of the nation. It should include the principal members of the national family.
A government under President Teodoro could seek -peace with the communists and put an end to the New People’s Army insurgency. The next Malacañang resident could exert efforts to sign a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. President Teodoro will pursue a dialogue with all restive members of society—the rightists, the left-of-center and Church activists—in the name of reconciliation. But he will draw the line on terrorism and the Abu Sayyaf predators.
To give a final example, just last month, the Times seized upon a pastoral statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and turned it into an opportunity to fawn over Teodoro yet again:
Gilbert Teodoro is “winnable” even if current surveys do not indicate so. His ratings have risen in recent weeks and should pick up as the campaign formally starts and as more Filipinos get to know more about his integrity, character and competitive edge over his opponents.
Our fate is not in the stars or in the surveys but in ourselves—this is the message of the CBCP pastoral letter. By voting wisely, we get the President we deserve, the leader we need.
That the Times has all but explicitly announced that it backs Teodoro should be no surprise, of course, as it is owned by Dante A. Ang, formerly personal publicist to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and currently a member of Cabinet, serving as the chairman of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.
Notwithstanding the bewilderment and outrage that Resolution No. 8758 has caused, the Comelec seems determined to enforce it immediately and to the letter, considering that legal division chief Ferdinand Rafanan has threatened to file criminal cases against celebrities who endorse any candidate during the official campaign period but fail to take a leave of absence or resign from their jobs. If the Comelec wishes to demonstrate that it is serious about the implementation of the resolution, however shaky the legal grounds, then it could do no better than order The Manila Times to shut down. Should it fail to do so, but insist on cracking down on other entities and individuals, the Comelec will only reinforce the already prevalent perception that it is not, in fact, an independent body, but merely one of the many playthings at the disposal of our hardworking and prayerful iconoclast of a president.
[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]