Rappler sues Comelec chief over debates, public interest issues

Earlier today, Friday, February 19, Rappler filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court asking it to intervene to allow millions of Filipinos to watch the upcoming presidential debate on their phones, tablets and computers. 

Why did we sue? 

Because a decision by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman, Andres Bautista, to grant broadcast rights to the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates only to the nation's biggest commercial television companies and their chosen partners is out of touch with reality.

Today's reality is that of 100 million Filipinos, 48 million get their news at least part of every day over phones, tablets or computers. 

Today's reality is that Filipinos lead the world in time spent on social media every day, partly because our median age is 23 years old.  

Today's reality is that close to 25 million registered voters belong to the 18-34 age group. They constitute about 46% of the country's total registered voters. Their votes matter, and the better informed they are, the better their choices will be. 

 

It's normal for large networks to push for all they can get, but it’s not normal for the Comelec, the body that administers elections, to abdicate its responsibility to ensure equal access. This is the first time since the post-Marcos years that a government institution awarded exclusive rights to a public event – including the power to police all media – to the largest television networks.

Discrimination and oligarchies

Instead of ensuring a wider distribution of the debate, the Comelec Chairman granted exclusive broadcasting and livestreaming rights to hand-picked partners – to the detriment of all other media outlets, including the government-owned PTV4.

Online news groups were excluded from the MOA in terms of coverage and live video streaming rights – a MOA Rappler signed based on good faith assurances that access would be granted. That didn’t happen.

By discriminating against Rappler, its constitutional right to equal protection has been violated. That the discrimination was aimed at restraining Rappler's free press rights makes the violation all the more reprehensible.

Worse, the exclusive rights granted by the Comelec Chairman over a Comelec-organized event are now being used to infringe not only upon Rappler’s free press rights, but upon those of our fellow reporters in Cagayan de Oro as well. In fact, all reporters covering this Sunday’s debate have been prohibited by the lead network to even use or locate any recording device within the event area. Ironically, the Comelec Chairman has permitted the lead network to be a de facto censor to ensure its monopoly on the debate content.

All of these betray the Comelec’s mission to educate the general public on matters that affect the choices they will make in May. Worse, this was made possible by the failure of the Comelec Chairman to restrain the lead networks' relentless pursuit of their commercial interests over and above the welfare of the voting public.

We are convinced the benefits and advantages accorded the lead networks violate the Anti-Graft Law because they are unwarranted. They were granted to the lead networks without the benefit of any transparent or equitable process; certainly, no public bidding was conducted. 

Finally, the suit was brought exclusively against the Chairman of the Comelec because it appears that he acted without the support of the other Commissioners. As part of a collegial body, the Chairman cannot act alone but only with the support of the other members of the Commission. 

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Media for a new generation

Rappler was founded in 2012 to serve the next generation of news consumers in the Philippines, out of a profound sense of civic responsibility. When Super Typhoon Yolanda hit this country, Rappler was on the ground, not only covering the story but offering Internet access to displaced communities.

Using mobile and web technologies and social media, its flagship program, Agos-eBayanihan, ensures the flow of critical and actionable information to those who need it before, during, and after disasters and connects those who need help directly with those who can truly help. Together with Rappler Indonesia, Change.org, and civic groups, Rappler helped raise awareness about the story of overseas Filipino worker Mary Jane Veloso, increasing public clamor for the Indonesian government to stay her execution on drug charges. 

The growing number of people who get their news from Rappler understand that information isn't something that's just distributed from on-high by powerful oligarchies interested in protecting their interests and friendships.

From its founding, Rappler has given readers the chance to weigh in on the news – registering their emotions and sentiments about events, which in turn, shapes how others see things. Rappler takes questions and comments from its readers and uses them to shape coverage. Rappler features photos, video, and other content its readers contribute. 

And Rappler holds the powerful to account. Its investigative reporting has exposed corruption and the flagrant misuse of public funds both at the local and national levels, and at the executive, legislative and judicial levels. Our fact-checking has unmasked untruthful claims by elected officials about their academic achievements, and our relentless digging has shed light on previously ignored schisms and excesses within an influential local church.

Whatever the outcome of the case we've brought to the Supreme Court, our community knows that Rappler will cover the debate regardless of whether or not we can stream the video. We'll ensure greater engagement – giving our community a voice that will help shape the news we all consume. We’ll offer insights and commentary from our veteran editors and partners. And we'll juxtapose the rhetoric with the substance of the issues the country faces.

So wherever you watch the debate, come to Rappler to better understand the issues and help shape the future vote. – Rappler.com