Rappler case: Equal access to election debates

MANILA, Philippines – Do you remember, when Pope Francis arrived in Manila, that you could watch the event on any television station, hear it on the radio, watch it on your computer or tablet or smartphone? Do you remember that was also your experience during the APEC Summit in Manila last November? You were watching the same video, but each news group added its own branding and commentary. Even more important, you could watch it anywhere you wanted.

Those were made possible by a media or broadcast pool. For decades, that was how countries around the world had organized mass media coverage to give all organizations equal access and assure freedom of the press. That was how viewers and readers had been given the choice to witness events the way they preferred to.

That was, however, not the way the first-ever debate for a hotly contested and crucial elections in the Philippines was organized. (READ: The Cagayan de Oro Presidential Debate)

From the first time the Commission on Elections (Comelec) discussed the debates with media companies on September 21, 2015, Rappler fought for equal access for everyone.

In good faith, we submitted our recommendations for broadcast pool guidelines a day later. The Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), essentially deputized by Comelec, had never run a broadcast pool, and so asked for help. 

READ: Rappler email to the KBP and Comelec on the proposed broadcast pool guidelines

BSC Petition annexes (Pilipinas Debates) Broadcast Guidelines - 1st Draft by Rappler Philippines

READ: Rappler email to KBP and the Comelec on proposed amendments to the MOA draft regarding access to the live feed and copyright 

Oct 20 - Response to Proposed Rappler Amendments - Rey Hulog - KBP.pdf by Rappler Philippines

Today, Inquirer's John Nery is taking Rappler to task for suing the Comelec chairman, supposedly because he sidelined Rappler after it acted "as though it were a lead organizer for all four debates.” The columnist calls it "'handpicked' hypocrisy." His is a handpicked recollection of events.

Rappler never asked to be the lead organizer for all the debates. That is not our spirit, and our actions show this. Comelec suggested that we take the lead in the social media execution of the debates, but that was premised on the spirit of online collaboration and engagement, which Nery probably does not quite grasp.

Equal access is the core of every action we have taken in relation to the Comelec debates. (Read the case file here: Rappler sues Comelec chief over debates, public interest issues)

GBM Letter to Comelec - Pilipinas 2016 Debates-2016012128012016.pdf by Rappler Philippines

Redefining equal access

The current debate arrangement redefined equal access and pooled coverage: by giving a copyright, Comelec gave the lead networks ownership of the debates.

Through closed-door meetings – certainly not the "first meeting" that Nery was able to attend – the largest networks were given preferential treatment, including the power to exclude everyone else from even being in the same hall as the candidates.

In Cagayan de Oro, local journalists protested, and when some concessions were made at the last minute, they covered "in protest."

Rappler filed a case against Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista to challenge what we saw as a blatant violation of the Constitution. When the head of a government agency abdicated to commercial interests his responsibility to ensure that all media organizations have equal access to a public event, he essentially created conditions for a monopoly for that debate.

Of a little more than 2 hours the presidential candidates were in the venue, 48 minutes were filled with commercials, according to MindaNews. Each 30 second ad placement costs an average of P841,000, according to a network rate card. Candidates get a discount during election season, according to campaign insiders who pay for political ads in TV networks.

So this is Rappler’s case:

The agreement between the Comelec chairman and the largest networks challenges basic constitutional principles and sets a dangerous precedent. All this we presented in our case, which is pending with the Supreme Court, so we leave it at that. (READ: SC asks Comelec chief to comment on Rappler case)

READ: Copy of the Memorandum of Agreement on the PiliPinas 2016 Debates 

sgd-PiliPinas Debates MOA 2016 elections28012016.pdf by Rappler Philippines

We mean no disrespect to our colleagues, but it is time to go beyond vested corporate interests. We ask our political leaders to do so. Why would we not be willing to do it ourselves?  

Regardless of what happens behind the scenes, we support the first public debates in decades and remain committed to reporting and engaging our community during these debates. – Rappler.com