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Comelec to impose right of reply rule for candidates in May polls

(Updated 9:54 a.m., Jan. 24) - In an unprecedented move, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) will enforce a right of reply rule on charges printed or aired against candidates in the May midterm elections. According to Resolution No. 9615, “(A)ll parties and bona fide candidates shall have the right to reply to charges published or aired against them.” The resolution also said that “(t)he reply shall be given publicity by the newspaper, television, and/or radio station which first printed or aired the charges with the same prominence or in the same page or section, or in the same time slot as the first statement.” Commissioner Rene Sarmiento on Wednesday said this is the first time the Comelec is imposing a right of reply rule. “This is something new in our rules and regulations we have issued compared to what we’ve issued in the past. Wala pong right of reply noon.” Unnecessary Deputy Director Luis Teodoro of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said the right of reply rule is unnecessary since based on their studies, media practitioners usually get the side of all aggrieved parties in election coverages. “It’s part of the professional standards of the media. Most of the time, the other side is given space or airtime. So it’s really unnecessary,” Teodoro said in a phone interview. Teodoro noted that the right of reply rule would give candidates more airtime for campaigning, thus rendering useless the Comelec’s prohibition on airtime. Under Resolution No. 9615, the Comelec has cut the total airtime for candidates for this year’s elections. National candidates are given 120 minutes of television and 180 minutes of radio airtime, while local bets are given 60 minutes for television and 90 minutes for radio. Also for the first time, the Comelec had imposed an aggregate airtime in place of “per station basis” – meaning the prescribed period will apply “whether appearing on national, regional, or local, free or cable television.” “’Yang resolution ng Comelec throws out the window ‘yung limited airtime exposure. Kasi if you’re a candidate, you criticize somebody, then the candidates now say ‘I claim the right of reply.’ How far can they claim that? How often can they claim that? The Comelec should make that clear,” Teodoro said. He said the Comelec should also clarify if the time spent on the right of reply rule will also be included in the rules on limited air time. GMA Network, Inc., for its part, said the Comelec should give the network leeway "to determine on its own which matters are newsworthy enough to air on its programs." "Given that candidates would most likely hurl various charges and accusations against each other during the election period, some of which are news-worthy enough to report on air, and considering the limited amount of airtime which news programs are allotted, GMA envisions that its news programs will be inundated by demands from various candidates clamoring for their supposed right to reply to GMA's news reports," the network said in a letter sent to Comelec Wednesday. "Given these circumstances and limitations, GMA submits that it should be given leeway by the Honorable Commission to determine on its own which matters are newsworthy enough to air on its programs and not to be burdened with the submission of reports of claims invoking said right to reply and/or to air a candidate's reply," it added. The network also said that with its 50 years of experience and expertise in the industry, it knows "when it is necessary to air the other side and to correct itself in the event of an erroneous report." Coercive aspect Teodoro also said the right of reply rule may force the media to provide space or airtime for replies. “You’re forcing the media to provide space or airtime for replies. So may coercive aspect ‘yan... You will remove from the media the right to decide,” he said. Commissioner Sarmiento, however, said the rule will not form a prior restraint against the press. “Well, balancing of interest po between freedom of expression and public interest also. While we can say na form of control sa media, or hindi naman strict control sa media, may pagbibigyan naman natin ‘yung kabila. ‘Yung due process of law naman,” he said. He admitted that they have yet to settle legal questions as to whether it will suppress the press. “I think mga legal questions, hindi pa nakakaharap ng Comelec kasi first time ito. So I think we’ll cross the bridge when we get there. This has to be decided carefully by the Comelec,” Sarmiento said. The right of reply rule is not new in the Philippines. A right of reply bill had been filed in the 14th Congress last 2009, which seeks to give a person criticized on a news medium a right to reply to the accusations with the same space free of charge. The bill also seeks to penalize journalists — including newspaper publishers, broadcast directors and media owners — who will not allot airtime or newspaper space to aggrieved parties in their news reports.  — KBK/KG, GMA News