Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This was published in the February 17, 2010 edition of the Business Mirror, page A6.

If you can’t beat them, arrange to have them beaten. – George Carlin

There is a big controversy over Sec.36 of Comelec Resolution 8758. One newspaper said it “sent shock waves through both newsrooms and dressing rooms” because it compels “mass media personalities endorsing candidates to resign or go on leave during the campaign period.”

The rule gags everyone in mass media: “any mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter, on-air correspondent, or personality.” So, what is an opinion writer supposed to do during the campaign period, pretend he has no opinion on the candidates?

The Comelec made no distinction between media personalities who endorse a candidate for free and those who do it for a fee.  As far as the Comelec goes, all endorsers are alike even though the difference is obvious.

Furthermore, the Comelec forces those in mass media to choose between their right to express their beliefs and their right to earn a living. That is a false choice, an invented incompatibility between two basic human rights.

If at all, the Comelec should count paid endorsements as part of the rules that deal with (a) campaign expenses, and (b) broadcast, printed, or published election propaganda.

On AM radio last weekend a Comelec official and a loquacious lawyer from the PPCRV (Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting) warned media personalities not to test their resolve. They sounded like they were daring those affected by the gag to step over the line. They were so sure the line was clearly drawn. Let’s see.

What if I say I will not support the crooked businessman/politician, the pardoned plunderer, the standard-bearer of Gloria, and the fringe candidates, did I endorse the candidate I did not mention? Will I be penalized for un-endorsing candidates?

The thing is the gag rule has been around for a long time but the Comelec has been lax about enforcing it. So one can’t help but ask, why the sudden determination to enforce the law this time around? It could be that the Comelec wants to level the playing field between those who get a lot of free endorsements and those who have to pay through the nose for them, but is discouraging volunteerism the right way to go?

There is something even more outrageous than the gag rule. It is the artful addition of two words to Section 11 of Comelec Resolution 8758.

Keep in mind that the said resolution is the implementing rules and regulations for the Fair Election Practices Act.

In elections past, the Comelec imposed a ceiling on the amount of airtime any candidate/party can buy. That rule, unchanged over the last two elections, reads:

“The aggregate duration of air time that a candidate, or registered political party, party-list group, organization, and/or coalition thereof may use for their broadcast advertisements or election propaganda shall be, as follows:

“(a). For candidates/ Registered Political parties for a National Elective Position: One hundred twenty (120) minutes in television, and one hundred eighty (180) minutes in radio, for all televisions or cable televisions, or all radio stations whether by purchase or donation, wherever located.

“(b). For candidates/ Registered Political Parties for a Local Elective Position: Sixty (60) minutes in television, and ninety (90) minutes in radio, for all televisions or cable televisions, or all radio stations whether by purchase or donation, wherever located.”

For the 2010 elections, however, the Comelec turned the rule on its head. It added a comma and two words – “per station” – after the words “wherever located.”

Do the math; that little colatilla changes everything. The dis-aggregation of airtime limits gives the moneyed candidate/party a big boost.

So while everyone focused on the gag rule, the Comelec got away with murder. It killed fair play with a comma and two words. It allowed the pre-campaign period money-game to continue.

I wonder who’s celebrating the Comelec’s sudden determination to strictly enforce the gag rule and its artful modification of the time limits on TV and radio advertising.

(Last Monday, newspapers reported the Comelec modified its stand on the gag rule. It said compliance was now optional.)