Calida tells Comelec to scrap polls partnership with Rappler or risk court case

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Calida tells Comelec to scrap polls partnership with Rappler or risk court case
Individuals queue for Voter registration outside the COMELEC office in Quezon City. Individuals Queue for Voter registration outside the COMELEC office in Quezon City on September 6, 2021.
The STAR / Boy Santos, file

MANILA, Philippines — Warning of potential court action, the Office of the Solicitor General is urging the Commission on Elections to rescind its Memorandum of Agreement with online news site Rappler for the May polls, claiming it "violates the Constitution and relevant laws."

Solicitor General Jose Calida said the Comelec has until March 4 to withdraw from the arrangement with Rappler.

"Otherwise, the OSG as the People’s lawyer, may have to file the necessary case in court to declare the nullity of the MOA by 7 March 2022," the OSG added in a statement late Monday afternoon.

The Comelec last week announced that it entered into a partnership with Rappler on "voter engagement and fighting disinformation in relation to the 2022 National and Local Elections."

In its press statement dated February 23, the poll body said the online media company committed its resources to help them disseminate information and engage the public. "An online show, podcast, workshops and seminars are also in the pipeline," it added.

SEC case, data sharing

But Calida questioned the partnership and claimed it "will unwittingly grant Rappler, a foreign-funded entity, the monopoly of truths arising from its claimed fact-checking accreditation from international entities."

The solicitor general was referring to the revocation of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Rappler’s Certificate of Incorporation in 2018 The SEC ruling has since been elevated to the Court of Appeals, and the court later ordered the regulatory body to look into the effects of Philippine Depositary Receipts of Omidyar Network to the company.

The SEC however upheld that the donation has "no effect," according to Rappler’s lawyer in November 2021. They have since appealed the finding.

But Calida insisted that Rappler is subject to the foreign equity restriction under the Constitution. "Thus, the MOA contravenes this Constitutional limitation and the proscription against foreign participation in the conduct of the elections," he added.

The solicitor general also questioned the authority given to Rappler to produce show for election-related information, to "alert" the poll body on election-related clams on social media, and to establish “PHVote Microsite,” which will contain information related to the polls.

Calida went as far as accusing Rappler of disseminating "unverified and, sometimes, false claims" and noting the Distributed-Denial-of-Service attacks on its website in insisting on their being "unfit" for the purpose of the MOA.

DDoS attacks on news website have become more frequent in recent months and have targeted news sites other than Rappler. On Sunday, a DDoS attack took down the website of CNN Philippines as the network was hosting presidential debates. Newsrooms and press freedom organizations have called for government action to look into the attacks.

Quoting Calida, the OSG said that if "Rappler goes on to implement the MOA, the credibility and integrity of the 2022 elections will be in shatters."

But Rappler, in a statement, said Calida's statement is "fraught with falsehoods, innuendos and hallucinations", saying also that the memorandum of agreement with the Comelec is to "[help] the poll body disseminate truthful information to voters and ensure transparent elections."

Rappler said it has been partnering with the Comelec since 2013 and that the poll body has similar arrangements with other media companies.

"This claim reads like the column and social posts of the lobbyists of a presidential bet," it also said.

Marcos camp also questions MOA

Earlier on Monday, the campaign team of presidential aspirant Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. questioned the same agreement between the Comelec and Rappler.

Benhur Abalos, Marcos’ campaign manager, asked why Comelec allowed Rappler to be a "fact checker" as he raised the SEC and CA rulings on Rappler. He also said they have "issues" on the Comelec's precinct finder, which will also be made available to Rappler’s website.

This is not the first time the Marcos team and the OSG have been on the same side as they both earlier moved to have Associate Justice Marvic Leonen inhibit in the poll protest that the former senator filed over the results of the 2016 vice-presidential elections.

READ: Like Marcos, Calida pushes for Leonen inhibition in VP poll protest

Responding to issues raised by the Marcos campaign, Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez pointed out that the issue on supposed foreign ownership of Rappler is still pending before the CA.

"If it’s pending before CA it seems to me like a final determination hasn’t been reached yet. The Comelec is not the proper venue to make that proper determination," he said.

Jimenez also explained that its MOA with Rappler is the same that they enter into with other media organizations.

"Rappler is not getting any special information it’s not getting any special treatment. It’s not getting any information that would not be available to any other media network," he also said.

To note, Jimenez was asked to react on Abalos’ statements. At the time of the briefing, the OSG had yet to release its statement questioning the MOA.

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