The recent ruling by the Supreme Court (SC) declaring as unconstitutional the airtime limits imposed by the Commission on Election (Comelec) almost certainly guarantees that the 2016 national elections will be more of an advertising campaign than a political contest.
But before anyone points an accusing finger at the SC, we should stress that the High Court’s job is to merely interpret and apply the law – in this case, Republic Act 9006 or “The Fair Election Act”—based on the facts and the constitution.
Passed in 2001, the law permitted political advertisements albeit with certain limitations: 120 minutes of TV ads and 180 minutes of radio ads for national candidates and 60 minutes of TV airtime and 90 minutes of radio airtime for local candidates. The problem, however, is that the law did not categorically say whether the advertising limit applied on a “per station” basis or on the “aggregate total” (i.e. across all stations throughout the country).
Understandably, ordinary folks are bewildered that Comelec’s “aggregate total” airtime limits in the 2013 elections were invalidated even though this was practically the same rule that was applied during the 2001 elections. At that time, no television or radio station questioned the airtime rule.
It was only in the 2004 elections, with the Comelec under then chairman Benjamin Abalos, that the poll body changed the rule by applying the advertising limits on a per station basis. This was the same interpretation applied during the 2007 and 2010 elections.
After some big broadcast outfits assailed the 2013 airtime limits, the SC struck down a part of the Comelec resolution limiting political advertisements because of “(a) the arbitrary manner by which Comelec changed the previous regulation from “per station” to “aggregate total”; (b) the violation of freedom of expression, speech and of the press; (c) the violation of the people’s right to suffrage; (d) the absence of prior hearing before adoption.”
The SC has not yet publicly released or published the decision in this case but we’re sure it rests on solid legal ground especially with the unanimous 14-0 vote.
But with the expected deluge of political advertisements, many Filipino voters will essentially be deciding their leaders – and future – based on trivialities, scandals and accusations, slogans and name-calling rather than on reasoned debate.
Ironically, while Filipinos are getting smarter over the decades, it seems political debate has “dumbed down” decade by decade. This deteriorating trend has been blamed by some analysts on the rise of broadcast media as the primary medium by which most of our countrymen obtain information on politicians and political developments.
And with the increasing public appetite for “breaking news” items, TV and radio news stories are getting briefer and churned out faster. Reporting and commentaries on national issues have all but been reduced to “sound bites.” Politicians mouth slick slogans (much like PNoy’s “tuwid na daan” mantra) without having to expound on them or open them up to public scrutiny or debate.
Political campaigns over broadcast media via paid advertisements will only serve to distort political discourse. We all know that paid commercials are generally shorter in length and usually tend to sell a candidate or party – or malign the opponent – rather than develop arguments on national issues like education, employment, health care, etc.
In political advertisements, voters are being asked to judge candidates based on how they looked, sounded and acted or on who their celebrity endorser is. Candidates are packaged as if they were top-of-the-line consumer products.
This has led advertising icon David Ogilvy to label political spots as “the most deceptive, misleading, unfair and untruthful of all advertising.” Ogilvy said, “Political advertising ought to be stopped. It’s the only really dishonest kind of advertising that’s left. It’s totally dishonest.”
Worse, since political broadcasts aren’t cheap, it’s wealthy candidates and political parties who will surely gain control of the advertising airtime.
However, Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. has vowed that the poll body would come up with a new resolution to level the playing field between rich and poor candidates in the 2016 elections. He says that although there may not be a limit on airtime of political ads, there’s still a limit on spending.
“We can still go after these candidates through their campaign expenses,” Brillantes said.
This is why some campaign reform advocates are urging the Comelec to require all TV and radio stations to submit and publish their “rate card” (i.e. the “price list” for the various ad placement options offered by a media outlet) for the campaign period in order to easily monitor a candidate’s campaign expenditure. Others suggest that Comelec deputize the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) as its auditing arm to track and verify the sale of advertising spots by broadcast outfits as well as the candidates’ expenses.
Whatever the strategy is, what’s clear is that we need urgent electoral reforms to counter the “dumbing down” of Filipino voters.