Right to reply smuggled in Comelec IRR

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 (The Philippine Star) - January 12, 2016 - 9:00am

In apparent show of “unity,” the entire Commission on Elections (Comelec), including two feuding commissioners, appeared together before the media yesterday.This obviously sought to put an end to the internal strife between two Comelec commissioners from turning into a full-blown public spectacle.

Comelec chairman Andres Bautista designated yesterday fellow commissioner Arthur Lim “as the senior commissioner in terms of wisdom” to speak for all of them. Lim declared “all’s well that ends well” for the poll body and that they have agreed to “move forward” after this ugly episode.

Of course, they must. With the national and local elections taking place on May 9, it behooves these Comelec commissioners that they are mandated and sworn to administer the political contests in the country, not fight in contest among themselves. So whatever personal or official differences each of them have against each other, the commissioners must first get their act together before anything else.

As a collegial body, the Comelec chairman is the “primus inter-pares,” or first among equals of his fellow commissioners in the seven-man poll body. Therefore, as Comelec chairman, he has the authority to call the attention of any official under him, including commissioner Rowena Guanzon for any breach of procedures, if not protocol. Incidentally, both are appointees of President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III along with the rest of the Comelec commissioners.

The furor started when Bautista found out last Friday from media reports that Guanzon submitted to the Supreme Court (SC) earlier that day the Comelec reply to the questioned disqualification ruling against presidential candidate Sen. Grace Poe. In a memorandum, Bautista ordered Guanzon to explain why she proceeded to file the comment in behalf of the poll body.

Bautista’s memo fell into the hands of media later that day. As to how media got hold of the internal memo obviously riled Guanzon.

So instead of making a written reply to the memo, Guanzon posted on Twitter her acerbic rebuttal. She ranted that she is not a subordinate nor an employee of Bautista. She took issue why Bautista did not just quietly discuss the matter with her since their respective offices are just beside each other at Comelec in Gen. Antonio Luna St. in Intramuros, Manila.

She insisted she acted with the full knowledge of the Comelec en banc which earlier designated her to draft the comment for submission to SC. Faced with the SC deadline, she proceeded to submit the Comelec comment without going back to her fellow commissioners to make their final read and make any amendments, if any.

Certainly, she may have acted in good faith for what she did. But one mistake cannot be corrected by another mistake.

Adding to her very strongly worded Twitter post against Bautista, she hurled very serious allegations against the Comelec chairman before TV interviews. She accused the Comelec chairman no less of possible partisanship with one of the presidential candidates.

So how can the Comelec assuage the public “all’s well” now in the poll body? We should take that with a grain of salt.

After so much hullaballoo, all of them – including Bautista himself – eventually signed and adopted Guanzon’s draft comment en toto at the end of their en banc meeting yesterday.

With her original draft as submitted to the SC sustained, Guanzon kept her peace, for now, I guess. All throughout Guanzon’s personal tirades on him, no hurting words were ever uttered by the gentleman Comelec chairman, not in public anyway.

Bautista merely smiled at us when we ribbed him about his brewing rift with Guanzon when we attended last Monday’s Comelec public hearing on the new implementing rules and regulations (IRR) on the Fair Election Act. Accompanied by fellow commissioners Christian Robert Lim and Luie Tito F. Guia, the Comelec chairman participated in the hearing on the proposed amendments of the IRR on Republic Act 9006, otherwise called as the “Fair Election Act” which will also govern the political advertisements or propaganda for or against any candidate or political party in the coming May 9 elections.

According to Comelec public information department head James Jimenez they called for this public hearing to enable the Comelec update their IRR on Fair Election Act, especially with the advent of the internet or social media as one of the means for political ads and campaign.

It was only now that we in media discovered the existing IRR being implemented by the Comelec already allows the controversial right of reply (ROR) in the campaign rules.

What many lawmakers have failed to legislate has apparently been smuggled into the Comelec IRR into the Fair Election Act. So during these 120 days of the election period in the country, all media entities are mandated to comply with this under Section 16 of the IRR. Thankfully, there is no penal provision attached to it.

The ROR is precisely one of the reasons the equally controversial Freedom of Information (FOI) bill got snagged anew in the 16th Congress. The passage of the FOI Bill was a campaign promise of President Aquino in 2010 and over 20 versions were promptly filed by pro-administration and opposition lawmakers.
The FOI bill was approved by the House committee on public information in May last year but it has yet to be taken up in plenary. Its approval by previous Congresses was derailed at the last minute due to the insistence of some House members for an ROR provision.

The right of reply provision, which mandates guaranteed space in news for rebuttals, is strongly opposed by anti-corruption groups and news organizations. Although guaranteed in our country’s Constitution, there is no enabling law yet passed by Congress for ROR. And yet at the Comelec public hearing, Jimenez and Lim cited this constitutional provision and SC jurisprudence to justify the inclusion of ROR into the Fair Election Act IRR.

Is this another case of “judicial legislation” that no less than Senate president Franklin Drilon has strongly denounced as intruding into mandates of a co-equal branch of government?

At any rate, Comelec unwittingly abets this ROR ploy that circumvents the IRR limits on political ads.

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