What candidates, journalists cannot do during elections

With less than eight months to go before the 2016 Philippine presidential elections, Filipinos will again look to media to provide them with credible and critical sources of information concerning the candidates, their electoral campaign and political agenda to enable them to freely and intelligently exercise their right of suffrage.

Election propaganda in any and all mediums of communication is allowed for all political parties and candidates, whether local or national, but under some limitations such as those on authorized election expenditures, observance of truth in advertising and subject to the supervision and regulation by the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

The Comelec is tasked to supervise the use and employment of media—print, radio, television and, more recently, Internet technology—relative to the holding of the elections.

Republic Act (RA) 9006, also known as the Fair Election Act, provides that during the election period, there shall be no issuances, suspension or cancellation of radio or television franchises. Registered parties and candidates are assured of equal access to media time and space, following certain guidelines.

For one, political parties and candidates are now allowed to take on “paid advertisements” in print and broadcast media, with the old law on the political ad ban having been repealed. But election campaign-related “paid advertisements” must always conform to the manner and reportorial requirement provided for by law and its implementing rules.

THE FREEMAN reporter Garry Lao hands in his certificate of candidacy for councilor of Barangay Tejero, Cebu City at the city Comelec office. He is now on his third term as councilor. (SUNSTAR FILE)

Naming donors

RA 9006 provides that any published or printed political matter or any broadcast of election propaganda by television or radio, either for or against any candidate to a public office, “shall bear and be identified by the reasonably legible or audible words ‘political advertisement paid for’ followed by the true and correct name and address of the candidate or party for whose benefit the election propaganda was printed or aired.”

In previous elections, however, it was a common practice for media entities to merely attribute the media ads in generic terms to a friend of a candidate.

Comelec Commissioner Robert Christian Lim said during a public consultation in Cebu last July 27, 2015 that Comelec is coming up with a proposed Omnibus Rules and Regulations Governing Campaign Finance and Expenditures.

Under the proposal, candidates will be strictly compelled to identify their campaign donors. The candidates themselves, or in the case of political parties, their treasurers will be asked to sign the advertisement contract with the media entity, thereby minimizing the previous excuses of candidates in the past elections that they did not know that somebody else placed ads to help in their campaign.

This is nothing new, though, because RA 9006 actually provides for this. This was just not strictly followed by the candidates and the media, nor was it strictly implemented by Comelec.

Regulating ad size

RA 9006 also imposes limitations on the size or length of political advertisements, as well as their duration or frequency.

The law limits the size of printed advertisements to ¼ page in broadsheets or ½ page in tabloids at a frequency of three times in a week per newspaper, magazine or publication.

For broadcast, each political candidate or party for a national position is entitled to not more than 120 minutes of TV ads and 180 minutes of radio ads. Each candidate or party for local posts, on the other hand, is allowed 60 minutes of TV ads and 90 minutes of radio ads.

During the May 14, 2007 and May 10, 2010 elections, Comelec interpreted these airtime limitations under RA 9006 to mean that the number of airtime minutes is on a “per station” basis.

However, for the May 13, 2013 elections, Comelec promulgated Comelec Resolution No. 9615 changing the interpretation of the airtime minutes of political candidates and parties from “per station” basis to “total aggregate” basis. This meant that a candidate for a national position, for example, was entitled only to a total of 120 minutes of TV ads, counting the combined TV ads placed in all TV stations, and a total of 180 minutes of radio ads, counting the combined radio ads placed in all radio stations.

This novel introduction created quite a stir in the broadcast industry. Major TV networks (GMA 7, ABC 5, ABS-CBN), radio networks (MBC, NBN and RMN), the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas, and Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano separately questioned before the Supreme Court the “total aggregate airtime” imposed under Comelec Resolution No. 9615.

Its implementation was immediately halted following the high tribunal’s issuance of a temporary restraining order. On Sept. 2, 2014, the Supreme Court (SC) issued a decision on these consolidated cases and ultimately declared Section 9(a) of Comelec Resolution No. 9615 on “aggregate total” airtime unconstitutional.

In declaring the questioned provision unreasonable, arbitrary and whimsical, the SC highlighted the importance of free of speech and of the press.

Atty. Lionel Marco Castillano, Cebu Provincial Election Officer, said that with this SC decision, the Comelec is left with no choice but to revert to the old rule applying the airtime limit on a “per station” basis for the May 2016 elections.

Comelec space

Not too many know that the country’s election laws even mandate Comelec to procure print space “upon payment of just compensation” from at least three national newspapers of general circulation and to procure “free” airtime from at least three national TV networks and three national radio networks.

These print space, TV airtime and radio airtime are to be allocated equally and impartially among all the candidates for national office on three different calendar days, which they can use to announce their candidacies at no cost to the candidates.

Comelec is to pay for the print space, but the airtime is to be given to Comelec for free by the TV and radio stations. The law, however, is silent both as to the actual size of the print space per publication or the number of airtime minutes per airing.

RA 9006 further grants Comelec the option to require national TV and radio networks to sponsor at least three national debates among presidential candidates and at least one national debate among vice presidential candidates. The sponsoring TV or radio stations can sell airtime commercials for these national debates.

Aside from print space and airtime intended for the candidates and political parties, RA 9006 also allows Comelec to procure print space and airtime to be used exclusively by Comelec for “public information dissemination on election-related concerns,” to be known as Comelec Space and Comelec Time. This Comelec Space must be in one newspaper of general circulation, which Comelec can avail itself of upon proper payment. On the other hand, Comelec Time must be in one major broadcast station (either TV or radio) in every province or city, which airtime must be granted to Comelec free of charge.

If the electorate and the people are not familiar with these legal provisions on Comelec Space and Comelec Time, perhaps, it is only because Comelec itself has never exercised these options.

No movies

While there is a perceived advantage of name recall for entertainment and media personalities running for elective office, RA 9006 had sought to level the playing field between them and the ordinary candidates. During the campaign period, the showing or exhibition in a theater or TV station of a movie or documentary portraying the life or biography of a candidate is prohibited. In fact, “no movie, cinematograph or documentary portrayed by an actor or media personality who is himself a candidate” shall be allowed during the campaign period.

Castillano emphasizes, however, that these rules and regulations on the use of media by the candidates to directly or indirectly promote their candidacies will begin to apply only at the start of the official election campaign, not upon the filing of the certificates of candidacy.
Thus, the various TV and radio ads being broadcast this early with government officials promoting the achievements and agenda of the offices they represent are not election offenses because, first, they are not yet candidates and, second, their media endorsements are broadcast outside of the campaign period.

In disguise

But more than the print, radio or TV ads of politicians which are patently advertorial on their face, the more problematic aspects in media election coverage are those coming from political supporters (whether paid or voluntary) in the guise of on-board news and public affairs reporters, anchors or commentators.

Perhaps, in recognition of such reality, RA 9006 provides that Comelec shall see to it that radio, TV or cable TV stations do not allow programs that “manifestly favor or oppose any candidate or political party by unduly or repeatedly referring to or including said candidate and/or political party in such program.” However, the right of said broadcast entities “to air accounts of significant news or news worthy events and views on matters of public interest” shall be respected in all instances.

Lawmakers even copied the first two lines of The Philippine Journalist’s Code of Ethics, which was approved in 1988 by the Philippine Press Institute and the National Press Club, and included them under RA 9006 in this manner:

“6.5. All members of media, television, radio or print, shall scrupulously report and interpret the news, taking care not to suppress essential facts nor to distort the truth by omission or improper emphasis. They shall recognize the duty to air the other side and the duty to correct substantive errors promptly.”

Filing charges

But while Comelec can regulate media during the campaign period, Castillano admitted that Comelec would never initiate the filing of charges for violation of RA 9006 against them. Comelec would rather wait for complaints to be filed before its office, and these complaints would undergo the usual process of preliminary investigation by its Legal Department.

“There is a very thin line between what is newsworthy, fair commentary and partisan political activity. So we don’t initiate lest we be accused of being biased. Because (what will happen) if we initiate the complaint, (when) we are also the prosecutor?” said Castillano.

Journalist as candidate

Lawyer Ruphil Bañoc, station manager of dyHP RMN Cebu and former president of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) Cebu Chapter, admitted that paid hacks are prevalent during the campaign period.

This, despite the existing provision under the KBP rules and under RA 9006 that a mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter, on-air correspondent or personality who is a candidate for an elective post or who is a campaign volunteer for a candidate or who is hired by any candidate or party in whatever capacity shall be deemed resigned, if so required by their employer, or shall take a leave of absence from his work during such campaign period.

The choice whether to consider the employee or talent who runs for public office as resigned or merely on leave is left to the discretion of the media organization.

For example, a Sun.Star journalist who seeks elective office shall take a leave of absence from the time he files his certificate of candidacy, as stated in the Sun.Star Code of Standards and Ethics.

If the Sun Star journalist wins and assumes the post, only then is he considered resigned from his old job in the paper. If he loses or cannot assume the post, he can resume his old job in the paper but only upon the written recommendation of the Editorial Board and upon the written approval of the Office of the Publisher.

In GMA network, news and public affairs personnel are not permitted to simultaneously serve in any government position, whether elective or appointive.

Under the GMA News and Public Affairs’ Ethics and Editorial Manual, once the news and public affairs personnel, whether a regular employee or talent, files a certificate of candidacy, he is considered resigned from the network. If he does not win, he can apply at the network again but only one year after the election and depending upon the decision of the senior vice president, president/chief executive officer or executive vice president/chief operating officer.

Castillano said there was an instance in Tagbilaran City during the May 2013 elections wherein a radio anchor, who also happened to be an incumbent elective official running for another elective post, refused to give up his radio job during the campaign period.

Castillano, who was then assigned in Bohol, wrote a letter to the candidate-radioman reminding him of the prohibition under RA 9006, but still, he refused to give up his radio job. Someone eventually filed a case against the candidate/radio anchor for violation of RA 9006 and the case was subjected to regular preliminary investigation by the Comelec Law Department. Castillano could not ascertain anymore what happened to that case.

Bañoc said under the KBP rules, they leave it to each radio or TV station, depending on their company policy, to consider their personnel who run for public office either on leave or resigned.

For its part, dyHP considers such employees, including drama talents, who run for public office as resigned. Only after the elections do they talk again on whether they can work again for the station, said Bañoc.

Good shepherd

During the election season, the crucial role of news managers is highlighted, said Bañoc, adding that the station has the obligation to police its own ranks or to discipline its own people in order to preserve the station’s credibility.

He said veteran broadcast news managers would easily know those mediamen who are on the take just by the way they criticize. These paid hacks continue to praise their patrons on air and bark against their patron’s competitors even when there are no new issues that crop up.

Whenever he notices any of their station anchors or on-board talents doing this, Bañoc said he immediately calls their attention.

Bañoc admitted having once fired a radio personality after he was able to confirm that he indeed accepted payment from candidates in exchange for favorable commentaries.

“The news or station manager must be a good shepherd. If the manager is corrupt, the corruption will go all the way down to the reporters… The sad reality is some stations play deaf because the station is poor and here comes a blocktimer who pays in cash,” said Bañoc.

Ultimate judge

Both Castillano and Bañoc agreed that the ultimate judge is the listeners. And both agreed that politicians who hire blocktimers to attack their rivals and to defend them against their rivals are only fooling themselves because nobody is listening to these programs, except perhaps for their respective supporters.

Castillano suspects that the reason no complaints were filed against media practitioners for such election offenses is that they, too, employ the same tactic. “That’s the good thing about Cebu. Nagpatay ang mga kandidato sa airwaves,” said Castillano. (Rather than kill each other, candidates destroy each other just on the airwaves)

Bañoc emphasizes the importance of credibility for broadcast journalists. “I will preserve my credibility because that is my only capital. There are many who can speak and discuss more eloquently, but nobody believes in them because form and substance, plus credibility, go together,” he said.

“You cannot underestimate the listeners. They are brilliant enough to know whether the anchor is a paid hack or not,” said Bañoc.

“It boils down, in the end, to self-regulation. If you are not fair, do you think advertisers will place ads on media? It is to the best interest of the media to be fair,” said Castillano.

Bañoc added that being fair and independent in news coverage should be a regular habit for any media organization, whether or not there is an election.

Both Castillano and Bañoc agreed that for media to be effective, especially during the conduct of the elections, each media organization must take extra efforts in training its respective journalists about important election laws and rules and on how to cover the voting and canvassing of votes.

The legal limits, therefore, imposed on media are intended not to impede the exercise of free speech and free press but rather to maximize media’s ability for the conduct of a free, orderly, honest and credible elections.

Read also: Elections show right of reply doesn’t have to be legislated

(CJJ10 was published in hardcopy in September 2015.)