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Robredo camp mulls legal action over poster removal; Comelec defends action

The camp of Vice President Leni Robredo, a candidate for president in the 2022 elections, on Thursday said they are mulling legal action in connection with the removal of campaign posters in supporters' properties by the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

During a press briefing, lawyer Barry Gutierrez, Robredo's spokesperson, urged the Comelec to review its election policies as he claimed that there was a clear violation of the law when the poll body removed campaign materials in places owned by private individuals as part of its “Oplan Baklas.”

“Kung kinakailangan, pinag-aaralan sa kasalukuyan kung posibleng mag-file ng karapat dapat na kaso para maging mas klaro ‘yung rule dito sa isyung ito,” Gutierrez said.

(If necessary, we are currently studying the possibility of filing a case against the Comelec in order to make the rule clearer on this issue.]

Comelec on Wednesday led the removal of election campaign posters that it said were either oversized or posted in restricted areas. One of the tarpaulins taken down, based on a livestream aired on the Comelec's Facebook page, was of Robredo and her running mate, Senator Francis Pangilinan.

'Very arbitrary'

Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal backed Gutierrez, reiterating that the Comelec has no authority to remove oversized campaign posters in private properties. He said this violates the right of the candidates and the volunteers to freedom of expression.

“It is very arbitrary and a clear case of abuse of power and discretion and violation of one’s constitutional right to property,” Macalintal said, adding Comelec's action violated Section 1, Article 3 of the Bill of Rights.

“It is very arbitrary act of the Comelec because said persons were never given the chance to be heard which violated the procedure of right to due process when the said campaign materials were removed without any hearing,” Macalintal said.

Further, Macalintal, who represented Robredo in the poll protest filed by defeated vice presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. in 2016, stressed that the Fair Elections Act does not apply to non-candidates, and that its provisions on election propaganda materials pertain only to candidates and political parties.

He also criticized the provision under Section 21 of Comelec Resolution 10730 that states the common poster area size for political parties and party-lists is 12x16 feet and should not exceed a total area of 192 square feet. For independent candidates, it should be 4x6 feet and not exceed a total area of 24 square feet. 

“If we divide the 12x6 feet common poster areas, bawat kandidato, meron lamang siyang .04 feet by .06 feet para magkaron siya ng share doon sa [each candidate only has .04x.06 feet to have a share in the] common poster area,” Macalintal said.

Noting that there are 10 candidates for president, nine for vice president, 64 for senator, and some 170 for party-lists, Macalintal asked: “Can you imagine how absurd the regulation is?”

“If this is not absurdity, perhaps we could say it is a very ridiculous resolution,” he added.

Neri seeks overhaul

In a separate statement, former Bayan Muna representative and human rights lawyer Neri Colmenares said the poll body's Oplan Baklas "runs counter to what our regulations ought to be."

"We have always pointed out that election laws exist to create an equal playing field for all candidates. The essence of these regulations allows the marginalized to participate in the most important democratic exercise in our country so that the people may elect deserving leaders," Colmenares, who is running for senator, said.

"Instead of letting people express their support, Comelec has overreached through the takedown of campaign materials in private properties without due process," he added.

Colmenares said the poll body should review and overhaul its regulations, "which put moneyed candidates at an advantage and disenfranchise people running grassroots campaigns."

He also said the Comelec should focus more on scrutinizing massive monetary donations instead of people expressing support for their chosen candidates.

Targeted clampdown

Team Leni Robredo (TLR), a group of volunteers supporting the 2022 presidential bid of Vice President Robredo, also condemned Comelec over what it said was ignorance of the Constitution and the Supreme Court decision upholding the rights of private individuals to put up campaign posters on their preferred candidates within private property.

"The clampdown is clearly designed to create a climate of fear as more and more people are now standing up and demanding for a change in leadership – one that is clean, efficient, and for the people," the group said in a statement.

TLR said that Comelec only used its resolution to violate several rights guaranteed by Constitution such as right to life, liberty, or property; the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures; and right of each Filipinos to freedom of speech and of expression.

The group cited the Supreme Court ruling in the Diocese of Bacolod et. al vs. Comelec case involving the larger than life posters classifying 2013 Senate bets as Team Patay (Pro-Reproductive Health bill) and Team Buhay (Anti-Reproductive Health bill).

The High Court, in its decision on the Team Patay and Team Buhay posters, argued that "regulation of speech in the context of electoral campaigns made by persons who are not candidates or who do not speak as members of a political party, which are, taken as a whole, principally advocacies of a social issue that the public must consider during elections is unconstitutional."

"It is now time for the poll body to brush up on different Supreme Court rulings on this very issue as ignorance of the law excuses no one – not even the Comelec," the group pointed out.

"Our volunteers and ordinary citizens alike make use of their own resources to contribute towards the realization of a better political system for our country. We believe that it is unjust to quell their right to participate in the electoral process, which involves promoting their preferred candidate using their hard-earned money and resources within their respective private properties," it added.

Comelec defends action

In a message to GMA News Online, Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez maintained that the Comelec’s move to take down illegal campaign propaganda is “based on existing laws.”

“While anyone with a grievance in connection with the COMELEC’s exercise of its duties is free to seek recourse with the courts, it could be helpful if they were to file formal complaints with the COMELEC itself, specifying the time and place of the alleged violations,” he said.

“This would allow the COMELEC to promptly take appropriate action,” Jimenez added.

Several organizations, meanwhile, have appealed to the Comelec to stop taking down and confiscating election campaign posters in private properties,  saying it is "undemocratic" and "unconstitutional." --with Anna Felicia Bajo/KBK/LDF, GMA News