It shouldn’t be solely a matter of law. But the tempest over the Commission on Election’s warning that mass media practitioners who are candidates for public office this May or endorsers of candidates should go on leave or resign from their home media organizations has been uniformly about what the Fair Election Act of 2001 mandates.

The provision involved is Section 6.6: “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 or political party shall be deemed resigned, if so required by [his or her] employer, or shall take a leave of absence from his/her work as such during the campaign period.”

It seems clear enough at first glance — but only at first glance. The provision won’t get a prize for clarity, being vague enough to allow for at least two opposing interpretations. The first is that a media practitioner whether in print or broadcast would be “deemed resigned” ONLY IF required to resign by his or her employer. The second is that, EVEN WITHOUT being required by his or her employer, he or she must take a leave of absence from his media organization.

In addition, there’s the Comelec’s confusion, not necessarily proceeding from the wording of Section 6.6, over what “mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter on air correspondent or personality” means. Although that part seems clear enough because it’s specific, and doesn’t mention actors, the Comelec law department through Commissioner Ferdinand Rafanan used the more generic “celebrities” to refer to those who either have to resign or go on leave once they run for office or endorse a candidate.

Naturally Rafanan, and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) which brought it up in the first place, ended up including actors such as Dolphy, Lorna Tolentino, Eddie Garcia, etc., etc., among the “celebrities” covered by the provision who therefore had to give up whatever film gigs they’ve lined up during the campaign period.

The actors’ protests as well as those of their advocates were loud enough for the Comelec en banc to announce that Rafanan’s views were his own and was not yet official Comelec policy. Finally it announced early this week that “there is no requirement from Comelec for a particular media practitioner to resign or to take a leave. The discretion is left to the network or person involved.”

Fine. Except that certain “media practitioners” including actors do have TV programs they can use to further the candidacies of their endorsees or their own. There are also the cases of the “columnist(s), commentator(s), announcer(s), reporter(s), or on air correspondent(s)” who’re either running for office or who’re paid or volunteer campaigners for this or that candidate.

These individuals, whether volunteers or paid campaigners, do have the means to advance their or their endorsee’s candidacy through their newspaper columns and/or TV and radio programs. Some columnists and commentators who’re neither volunteers nor paid staff are also sufficiently biased in favor of this or that candidate to use their space or airtime in his or her behalf — and I mean practically at every opportunity

They do have the same right to free expression as other citizens. But they have a power ordinary citizens don’t have, and that’s the power to influence others and to shape opinion that’s inherent in media practice, through which they can reach, depending upon the medium as well as its circulation or ratings, thousands if not millions of voters.

Except in a handful of cases, there’s no discernible movement among those media practitioners — in print, broadcast and/or the Internet — to either stop themselves from commenting on the virtues of their candidates and the vices of their opponents, or to at least go on leave for the duration of the campaign. These are the ethical choices available, rather than continuing with one’s column or program for the duration of the campaign, pretending to be “objective” while being committed to a candidate or candidates.

It’s neither brain surgery nor rocket science. Assuming enough respect on their part for their day jobs, those who’re actually in the payroll of certain candidates have to either go on leave or resign, as do those who’re serving as volunteers in this or that politician’s campaign.

But so do those who have this early and even earlier expressed their preferences, and who continue to use their programs or columns to sing the praises of their chosen candidate and to put down his or her rivals. The public is perfectly entitled to reading those columns or listening to those programs that are honestly trying to look at the merits of the candidates. It doesn’t deserve the manipulation that occurs when media practitioners already committed to this or that candidate pretend to be “objective.” It may not be a matter of law. But it’s certainly a matter of ethics.

It’s for the power inherent in their programs or columns that media practitioners have either been hired or otherwise encouraged to support a particular candidate. They would be just like everyone else if they quit the media or go on leave. But that’s exactly the point. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, unless you’re the kind of practitioner whose cavalier interpretation of ethical practice is slowly but surely ruining the Philippine media — and contributing to the debasement of Philippine politics.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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