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Pro-RH groups question impartiality of church-backed Comelec citizens' arm

(Updated 4:35 p.m.) Pro-reproductive health (RH) groups on Wednesday questioned the independence of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), which is accredited by Comelec as its citizens' arm, due to its close links with the Catholic Church. Some sectors of the church have been campaigning for and against candidates, the most controversial example being the Bacolod Diocese's “Team Patay/Team Buhay” tarpaulin that condemns and lauds senatorial candidates according to their stand on the RH bill, which was passed into law last year. The “Team Patay/Team Buhay” tarpaulin was publicly displayed by the diocese to condemn senatorial candidates who were in favor of the RH bill while lauding “pro-life” bets. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) had asked the diocese to take down the “oversized” poster, but further action was stopped by the Supreme Court with the granting of a temporary restraining order in favor of the diocese. Economist Ernesto Pernia, also a trustee of the Forum for Family Planning and Development, said the PPCRV’s affiliation with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) raises doubts about the watchdog’s impartiality. Pernia said some of the PPCRV’s board members are bishops and members of the CBCP. One of the PPCRV’s trustees is Msgr. Gerry Santos of the Archdiocese of Manila, also head of Manila Archdiocesan and Parochial Schools. Chairperson Henrietta "Tita" De Villa also once served as the country's envoy to the Vatican. “It is basically identified with the CBCP and my misgiving about that connection with the CBCP is that it has become obvious. Some bishops with the CBCP are so single-minded about the RH law,” Pernia said at a forum Wednesday on fair and honest elections. "What is happening here is that the church is already prejudging that a politician [who] is in favor of the RH law is bad, is pro-death and is immoral… The church should not prejudge candidates on the basis of what they favor,” he added. Filipino Free Thinkers president Red Tani likewise denounced PPCRV chairperson De Villa for allegedly revealing a bias against senatorial candidates who voted for the passage of the RH law in Congress. “In an interview on March 5, Tita De Villa was asked about the issue of the Team Patay tarp. The way she responded made me a bit concerned,” Tani said. He was referring to a Radyo Veritas interview with De Villa, who said: “Pero sa aming voters education, maliwanag naman na pag-aralan ang karakter, kakayahan at katapatan. Dapat tapat sa buhay, tapat sa Panginoon. That covers that without us naming names.” “I’m concerned. Are we going to say that citizens should vote on the basis of being religious or of following the Vatican which they are very close to? Even if they do not give is very clear what they mean when they say that it’s pro-life, pro-church,” Tani said. De Villa responds Reached for comment, De Villa said she was not referring to the RH bill with her statements on “pro-life.” “I never put a reference on anything because I’m very careful in keeping the character of impartiality of PPCRV… Life is a very wide scope, a wide coverage and we in every aspect should value life,” she told GMA News Online in a phone interview. De Villa maintained too that the group's ties with the CBCP and her stint as ambassador to the Vatican do not mean they are partisan. “What does my closeness to the Vatican have to do with this? I was a former ambassador to the Holy See but I’ve never imposed on people whom they would vote for… We have bishop advisers and I don’t find anything wrong with that. Because from the beginning when we were organized, it is a response from the call of the church for renewal and transformation,” she added. PPCRV board member Marina Demetrio said De Villa’s statements were personal and does not represent the council’s stand. “I think it would be her personal position but not as PPCRV,” she said. Demetrio added that the PPCRV does not endorse candidates, but only advocates that voters should base their choices on “karakter, katapatan at kakayahan.” “Hindi namin sinasabi kung tapat ba siya sa buhay, tapat ba siya sa Panginoon. It takes on a more philosophical thought, hindi siya ‘yung sinasabing Team Buhay ba ‘yan. Ano ba ‘yung values ng isang kandidato?... Nire-reflect ba niya ang basic vales natin sa ating bansa? Nagiging tapat ba siya sa Diyos? Isa pa, ang tanong sa atin, ano ba ang Diyos para sa kanya? Iba rin ‘yun,” Demetrio said. Pernia dared PPCRV to talk to CBCP about pulling down the Team Buhay tarpaulin to prove its impartiality. “A true test of PPCRV would have been to advise CBCP to not get involved in campaigning for Team Patay, Team Buhay, which is so blatantly just outlandish… I would suggest that PPCRV advise certain bishops or the CBCP as the main link of PPCRV to dissuade bishops from getting involved in campaigning,” Pernia said. Demetrio meanwhile defended the Team Buhay tarpaulin, saying it forms part of the Church’s freedom of expression. “When the church set up those posters in excess or beyond the requirements of the Comelec, it was merely exercising its freedom to express what they think is right,” Demetrio said. For their part, Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said they would not judge citizens’ arm groups based only on speculations, adding that they are focusing on the Bacolod diocese which put up the tarpaulin in the first place. “We are focusing our attention on the diocese of Bacolod. They are the ones that did this. Not the PPCRV. Now why didn’t the PPCRV do something about it? That’s the matter CBCP and PPCRV have to deal with internally,” he said. “As far as we are concerned, our citizens’ arm had to be judged by their actions that they take directly… Basically ang pagtutuunan pa rin namin ng pansin ay ‘yung mga akto ng aming citizens’ arm, if clear connections can be made and it is directly linked to our citizens’ arm and it is proven that the citizens’ arm knew that such actions were taken, then we would look at it with prejudice,” Jimenez added. NAMFREL Meanwhile, another accredited citizens’ arm National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) was lauded for its broad-based constituency representing various Christian denominations. “I have little issue with NAMFREL because it is a broad-based citizens’ arm. Broad-based in the sense that it’s really multi-sectoral, cross-sectional. It also includes the Catholic Church but only partly because there are also so many Catholic Church organizations that are behind the backing of NAMFREL,” Pernia said. Comelec denied NAMFREL’s petition for accreditation in the 2010 elections for allegedly having biases for and against certain politicians – chairperson Jose Concepcion was accused of criticizing former president Joseph Estrada, while national chairperson Jose Cuisia allegedly “rubbed elbows” with the late president Corazon Aquino during the Arroyo administration. NAMFREL membership committee chair Damaso Magbual denied this, citing the case of Concepcion, who was called biased for attending a rally against corruption in the Estrada administration. “They say we are partisan because they saw Joey [Concepcion] in a rally of senior government officials protesting against the government. But the rally was to denounce corruption in government,” said Magbual, who is also chairperson of the Asian Network for Free Elections. “When you denounce corruption in government, that is not partisanship. You may be hitting the president or the party in power but the issue is should you tolerate corruption? No. It is a trait of good citizenship to denounce corruption regardless of where it happened,” he added. As for the case of Cuisia, Magbual said most of NAMFREL may be pro-Aquino but that does not affect their impartiality. “Admittedly many of the NAMFREL volunteers are pro-Aquino. Buts it’s a different thing. We are engaged in a political activity. We are not interested in who wins or who loses. We are only interested in the process that is played according to the rules of the game,” he said. Section 52 of the Omnibus Election Code gives the Comelec the power to enlist non-partisan organizations to assist them in ensuring free, orderly and honest elections. — BM/HS, GMA News