Friday, February 12, 2010

Fair Elections Act Trumps Celebrities' Free Speech

The entertainment industry recently rose up in arms against the Comelec for making known its intention to strictly enforce a resolution implementing the Fair Elections Act (R.A. 9006), which requires celebrities to resign or take a leave of absence from their work during the campaign period if they campaign for or against a candidate in the May 2010 elections. Although the Comelec ruled to make the requirement optional, some quarters, like the PPCRV, still appear poise to have the law implemented.

It is well known that many movie and television personalities have endorsed or campaigned for candidates, especially those vying for national elective positions, by appearing in political ads or campaign sorties. The Comelec and proponents of the law argue that candidates who employ celebrities derive undue advantage over other candidates due to the influence these celebrities wield over their massive viewers and followers.

Celebrities, on the other hand, counter that the strict enforcement of the law violates their free speech rights and rights as citizens to support the candidates they like, not to mention their right to earn a living. There is also argument that the law unduly singles them out.

Section 6, paragraph 6.6. of the Fair Elections Act provides that "[a]ny 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 their employer, or shall take a leave of absence from his/her work as such during the campaign period . . ."

The above-quoted provision clearly requires the enumerated persons, which include movie and TV personalities, to either resign or take a leave of absence from work during the campaign period if they are (1) candidates (2) campaign volunteers (3) employed or retained in any capacity by any candidate or political parties, including coalitions and party-list groups.

The State's interest in allowing equal opportunities for candidates in reaching out to voters by leveling the playing field - achieved through regulation of the time, place and manner of communicating political or campaign messages - has long been recognized since National Press Club v. Comelec. In fact, the Supreme Court has justified legislations of this nature under the Constitution's social justice provisions guaranteeing equal access to opportunities for public service to everyone.

While there is no question on the rule prohibiting mass media personalities, such as actors and newscasters, who are candidates, from working as such during the campaign period, a similar restriction on others who are not candidates but merely supporters or workers of candidates is unreasonable. A celebrity candidate who continues to do his or her high profile work clearly gives undue advantage over other candidates who are not similarly situated; the constant exposure allows him or her to become well acquainted with voters. Not only that, it makes the regulatory limits on broadcast time and print space useless as against these candidates. The same is true of non-candidate celebrities and other media personalities who actively campaign for or against a candidate during their shows.

Requiring non-candidate celebrities or media personalities to resign or abstain from work under pain of penal sanctions for campaigning for or against a candidate, other than through their movie or television programs, invades the realm of constitutionally protected speech. The strictures of Section 6, par. 6.6. of the Fair Elections Act, as implemented by Sec. 36 of Comelec Resolution 8758, suffers from overbreath for stifling more speech than is necessary. When a celebrity endorses a candidate in a legitimate political ad or performs any act to generate support for such candidate, he or she engages in political speech protected by the Constitution. The law in question, however, in effect penalizes that speech by barring the celebrity from engaging in his or her means of livelihood, even though for a limited period only. Failure to resign or take a leave of absence from work would constitute an election offense punishable by fine and imprisonment of up to six years.

The law does not only regulate the time, place and manner of the speech involved, but targets the content itself. It in effect restricts political speech by celebrities because it forces them to choose between engaging in political speech or their means of livelihood. To pass constitutional muster, the law must be justified by a compelling or overriding government purpose and the means employed must be necessary to achieve that purpose. As previously mentioned, it is now settled that the State has vital interest in having fair or level playing field among candidates in reaching out to voters, but the manner the questioned law seeks to achieve its objective does not appear to be necessary for it is not the least restrictive means of doing it.

The equalization of political speech and opportunities for reaching out to voters is no longer served here because the celebrity cannot be said to be still furthering a candidate's campaign by simply engaging in his or her normal work. True, the celebrity, by expressing support for a candidate, would henceforth be identified with that candidate, but identification or association cannot be justified as furtherance of a candidate's campaign anymore than a candidate choosing a certain network or newspaper for broadcast or publication of his or her political ads constitutes furtherance by that network or newspaper of the candidate's campaign.

What makes the questioned provision even more unreasonable is the fact that it applies as well to celebrities and media personalities who work for a candidate in capacities that do not necessarily expose them to the public, such as being a political or legal adviser, a consultant or a speech writer, since the law covers those who work in any capacity. The law is also vague as to what the term "campaign volunteer" means. If a celebrity cooks for the staff of a candidate or hosts meetings in his mansion, could he be considered a campaign volunteer? If so, how will that possibly obscure role, although performed by a well-known personality, give a candidate undue advantage over others, as does the adviser and consultant?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Dismal Lack of Campaign Finance Reform in the Philippines

While the United States is still abuzz with the US Supreme Court's recent ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission - which removed the prohibition on campaign spending by corporations and unions directly from their coffers, in a latest round of more than a century of debate to reform campaign finance - campaign finance laws in the Philippines have remained unchanged for decades.

Money, as an essential component of politics, needs to be regulated for its corrupting influence and, peculiarly in the Philippines, to level the playing field between moneyed and cash-strapped candidates. It is a given that one cannot successfully wage a decent and successful campaign without sufficient funding, for reaching out to voters and getting one's message across, not to mention the logistics needed in maintaining a political campaign, necessitates money. But when campaign finance is not regulated - as to source, extent and manner of spending - it becomes a problem.

The most pernicious effect of loose or unregulated campaign funds is the corrupting influence huge contributors exert on candidates once elected into office. Debt of gratitude becomes a factor in the grateful official's conduct in office, whether expected or not. More often than not, however, the generous donor expects a quid pro quo; a return on investment, if you will.

A simple illustration will show how unregulated campaign funds factor into the public functionary's conduct. A person who is elected mayor in a city, for example, is the beneficiary of huge campaign contributions from businessmen. When these businessmen-contributors apply for a license in setting up new business or when legislative measures are considered in the city council that will affect their pocketbooks - such as the imposition of new or higher taxes - the mayor-beneficiary will certainly be clouded in his judgment as payback time beckons.

Even in the unlikely scenario that the contributors expect nothing in return, the grateful official will likely protect the interests of his benefactors for fear of a backlash, by displeasing them or deterring others from making huge donations to his campaign in the future.

The other problem of unregulated campaign funds is the inequitous situation it creates between the moneyed and cash-strapped candidates. While the affluent has access to unlimited resources in reaching out to voters, the candidate of small means struggles to get his or her message across, which makes politics in the Philippines largely an affair for the wealthy few.

Finally, even if it were to be assumed that a candidate spends his or her own money in the campaign, there is that danger of him or her recouping the expenses once elected into office by pursuing nefarious "under-the-table" transactions and other corrupt practices.

Ever since Batas Pambansa Bilang 881 (Omnibus Election Code), the country's basic election law, came into effect in 1985, there has only been one legislation that introduced changes to campaign finance in the Philippines, which is Republic Act No. 7166 or the Electoral Reform Law. Even then the only reform introduced, aside from the penalties imposable for violation thereof, is the increase in the amount of campaign expenditures that may be incurred by a candidate, by increasing it from P1.50 for every registered voter in the constitutency for which a candidate filed a certificate of candidacy to P10.00 for the president and vice president, P3.00 for other candidates with a party, P5.00 for other candidates without a party, and P5.00 for political parties.

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives in 2007, which seeks to punish political turncoatism and impose limits on donations and expenditures by individuals and corporations, and in the Senate in 2004 by former Senator Ralph Recto (also deals with political turncoatism, creation of a state subsidy fund to augment the campaign activities of accredited political parties, and imposes limits on contributions), never saw the light of day.

Interestingly, the target of regulation in our existing laws is the spending aspect only. Our election laws are notoriously silent on any limit on contributions which go to the core of corrupting elected officials. Any person or business entity not disqualified by law may contribute any amount to a candidate's coffers. Although the law imposes limits on the amount and type of campaign expenditures, and candidates are required to report all contributions, there is nothing that regulates the excess contributions. After the elections are over the excess pretty much becomes discretionary funds of the candidates. It is no wonder then that Congressman Mikey Arroyo could say with a straight face that campaign contributions are among the sources of his increased net worth when questioned about his Statement of Assets and Liabilities.

Even with the existing limits on expenditures, however, it is no secret that candidates have always conveniently and flagrantly ignored them. Based on Comelec's election statistics for the 2007 national and local elections, there are about 45,294,430 registered voters nationwide. At a limit of Php 10.00 per registered voter, presidential and vice presidential candidates for that election should have spent only a maximum of P450,294,430.00 - a far cry from the P5 billion that one needs to be elected president, according to a 2008 report by the Pera't Politika Working Group, which is a consortium of public interest organizations formed to monitor election spending. The same report states that the expenditure for senatorial races ranges between P150 million and P500 million, P10 million for mayor, and P15-150 million for governor. It should be noted that these figures go way beyond the limits imposed by law.

As if lack of campaign finance reform is not enough, existing regulations are rendered meaningless for want of effective enforcement. Not one candidate has yet been penalized for violating spending limits. Not that I find pleasure in seeing someone punished, I'd be happy to know if Comelec can point to particualr cases. And even if it can, such cases would surely be dismally few and involve largely unknown candidates, compared to the hundreds of candidates who routinely violate the strictures on campaign spending. According to a 2004 article by Glenda M. Gloria, entitled "Selling a Candidate," cited in Pera't Pulitika's report, the media earned more than a billion pesos from political ads for the 2004 elections in just a span of four months. This is a tell-tale sign that spending limits have been violated, yet the Comelec has not taken any action against those responsible.

This early, presidential candidate Sen. Manny Villar has already reportedly spent P543 million in political ads on TV, putting him among the top 20 television advertisers. There's no telling how much he would spend more come formal campaign period. What is certain, however, is that we would see the same deluge of television, radio, and newspaper advertisements which would gobble up huge sums of money. But after elections are over, candidates will once again doctor the contribution and spending reports they will submit to Comelec, and the latter will simply file them away and pretend that the law has not been violated.