MANILA, Philippines – The campaign manager of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr and Solicitor General Jose Calida issued similar statements on Monday, February 28, questioning Rappler’s partnership with the Commission on Elections (Comelec) on voter awareness and fighting disinformation related to the May 2022 elections.
Rappler recently signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Comelec that entails alerting the poll body to fake news about the elections, creating content on voter’s education, and embedding the precinct voter function on the news website.
Marcos’ campaign manager Benhur Abalos told reporters Monday that Comelec should reconsider the agreement, falsely claiming that Rappler is a foreign entity.
Calida followed suit Monday evening, saying “Comelec’s MOA with Rappler violates the Constitution and relevant laws.”
The solicitor general, who campaigned for Marcos in the latter’s failed vice presidential bid in 2016, gave the poll body an ultimatum: “Rescind the MOA within 5 days or until March 4, 2022. Otherwise the OSG as the peoples’ lawyer may have to file the necessary case in court to declare the nullity of the MOA by March 7, 2022.”
Citing a closure order by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2018 against Rappler which he himself instigated, Calida said the company “does not have any legal personality to perform any corporate act, let alone enter into a MOA with the Comelec for the upcoming 2022 elections.”
Calida is wrong. As the SEC said in 2018, Rappler can run its business as usual until its order becomes final and executory. The case remains pending at the Court of Appeals (CA).
“Solicitor General Jose Calida’s claims on Monday, February 28, are fraught with falsehoods, innuendos, and hallucinations,” said Rappler in a statement. The MOA is about “helping the poll body disseminate truthful information to voters and ensure transparent elections,” Rappler said, noting that the poll body has similar partnerships with other media groups.
“So Calida hallucinates when he says this is tantamount to Comelec sharing ‘power’ with Rappler and allowing its civic engagement arm, Move.PH, to “decide on all questions affecting elections,” Rappler said. “This claim reads like the column and social posts of the lobbyists of a presidential bet.”
Marcos’ campaign manager mentioned the Rappler MOA right after defending the candidate’s non-committal response to attend the Comelec debate. Without a question from the press, Abalos said: “Dito ay hawak ko ang isang desisyon ng Court of Appeals na ang sinasabi ng desisyon na ito na sa kanila ay isang dayuhan ang Rappler.” (I am holding the Court of Appeals decision saying Rappler is a foreign entity.)
Not quite. The case stems from the Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDR) issued to Omidyar Network; media companies are allowed to have PDRs. Rappler’s PDR with Omidyar stated that before Rappler can change its constitution and bylaws, it should have a prior discussion with Omidyar. For the CA, this clause amounted to “some foreign control,” when media groups are constitutionally required to have zero foreign control.
But in the same decision issued in July 2018, the CA said Rappler should be given a corrective period, and that in fact, when Omidyar donated its PDRs to Rappler’s Filipino managers, “the negative foreign control found objectionable by the SEC appears to have been permanently removed.” SEC disagreed with the CA, thus the case remains pending.
Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said “as far as Comelec is concerned, hindi pa tapos ang kaso (case is not done yet.)”
“If it’s pending before CA, it seems to me that a final determination hasn’t been reached yet. The Comelec is not the proper venue to make that proper determination… So if they’re able to operate now, why should they not be considered a legitimate news organization?” Jimenez said.
He added: “Rappler is not getting any special information, it’s not getting any special treatment, it’s not getting special information that would not be available to any other media networks.”
Fact checking and precinct finder
Calida also raised alarm over what he thought was Comelec’s decision to give “access to confidential data of registered voters” to Rappler when it allowed the organization to embed the poll body’s precinct finder feature on its site. Singing the same tune as Calida, Abalos said suggested that Rappler can mislead a voter looking for his or her precinct. “Papano kung ‘yung sistema eh mali ang maibigay sayong presinto, syempre sa haba ng pila kung magkamali ka ng presinto di ka na makakaboto,” said Abalos.
(What if the system is wrong and it gives you the wrong precinct, of course when the line is long and you go to the wrong precinct, maybe you will not be able to vote.)
But the precinct finder, a public service feature, is an arrangement with other groups as well. The partnership also does not allow outside party access to personal data.
The fact-checking part of the MOA, on the other hand, does not only involve Rappler but the entire #FactsFirstPH consortium, a collaboration among 14 news groups and over 100 civil society organizations.
Marcos and Calida in sync
This is not the first time that Marcos and Calida have been in sync on key legal moves.
In 2020, Marcos and Calida filed motions on the same day seeking to inhibit Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen from the electoral contest that the dictator’s son filed against Vice President Leni Robredo.
The Supreme Court would unanimously junk Marcos’ protest in 2021, but not before Calida could fire offensives against Leonen, leading but failing in his attempt to unearth the justice’s Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth.
In Monday’s statement, Calida said it was advising Comelec to unilaterally rescind the agreement as “its statutory counsel.”
In the electoral protest case, Calida dropped its client Comelec to be able to take a position in favor of Marcos in the shading threshold issue. Until the very end of the case, Calida submitted pleadings in favor of Marcos.
Calida had used the resources of the Office of the Solicitor General to go after perceived critics of the Duterte government.
It was Calida who initiated the SEC investigation into Rappler, and during the pandemic, it was Calida who pushed for the shutdown of ABS-CBN via quo warranto and later pressured the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to issue a cease and desist against the network. That order marked the first time since Martial Law that ABS-CBN went off air. – Rappler.com