MANILA, Philippines (1st UPDATE) - The Commission on Elections (Comelec) on Thursday warned celebrities that they must go on leave from their shows or programs if they are endorsing political candidates.
"Kahit sinong media personality, on-air correspondent, basta naging campaigner, volunteer or campaign staff ng kandidato, ang sabi ng RA 9006 (Fair Elections Act). you should resign or take a leave of absence from being media personality," Comelec legal division chief Ferdinand Rafanan told ABS-CBN's Umagang Kay Ganda (UKG).
(If you are a media personality or on-air correspondent, if you are a campaigner, volunteer or campaign staff of a candidate, RA 9006 says you should resign or take a leave of absence from being a media personality.)
He said Comelec can file criminal complaints against celebrities who don't go on leave from their shows and programs during the campaign period.
Rafanan said actors and actresses whose endorsements will be aired during the regulated period will be considered campaigners or campaign volunteers of candidates.
"That is an election offense. We will file criminal complaint. We will get documentation to see if there really is a basis [for the filing of a criminal complaint]," the poll official said.
He said that the Comelec can start building a case against celebrity endorsers once the Fair Election Act's implementing rules and regulations (IRR) takes effect.
The IRR was promulgated by the Comelec's commission en banc last February 4. It will take effect 7 days after it is published in newspapers.
Rafanan's warning came after the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) urged actors and actresses who are openly endorsing candidates to take a leave of absence or resign for the whole duration of the campaign period.
Fair Election Act
PPCRV lawyer Howard Calleja said a violation of the Fair Election Act has a corresponding punishment of a minimum of one year and a maximum of 6 years imprisonment.
Calleja was referring to Sec. 6 (6.6) of the law which states: “Any mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter, on-air correspondent or personality who is a candidate for any elective public office or is a campaign volunteer for or employed or retained in any capacity by any candidate or political party shall be deemed resigned, if so required by their employer, or shall take a leave of absence from his/her work as such during the campaign period.”
Section 36 of the Comelec's IRR, meanwhile, said: "Mass Media Columnist, Announcer or Personality Running for Public Office or is a Campaign Volunteer. – Any mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter, on-air correspondent, or personality who is a candidate for any elective public office, or is a campaign volunteer for or employed or retained in any capacity by any candidate, political party, or party-list group, or organization, and/or coalition thereof, shall be deemed resigned, if so required by their employer, or shall take a leave of absence from his/her work as such during the campaign period; Provided, that after he has filed his certificate of candidacy but before the campaign period, it shall be his obligation not to use his media work for premature election campaign or partisan political activity: Provided, finally, that any media practitioner who is an official of a political party or a member of the campaign staff of a candidate, political party, or party-list group, organization, and/or coalition thereof, shall not use his/her time or space to favor any candidate, political party, or party-list group, organization, and/or coalition thereof."
Calleja clarified that the PPCRV is not trying to deprive show business personalities or media practitioners of earning money through endorsements or violating their right to support or campaign for a candidate.
"You are not limited to stop campaigning for the candidate," he said, reiterating that what they are against is the abuse of mass media as a platform for endorsements.
Several actors and actresses have appeared on political advertisements endorsing presidential candidates, particularly the leading candidates, Senators Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III and Manuel Villar.
Among the endorsers are talents of ABS-CBN and GMA 7.
Kris Aquino is actively involved in the campaign of his brother, Noynoy, while Willie Revillame has openly endorsed Villar for the presidency.
In a statement, ABS-CBN reiterated that its "policy is consistent with the Fair Elections Act. Our on-cam talents are prohibited from using ABS-CBN programs and platforms during the official campaign period, in whatever form or manner, to favor any political candidate, political party or party list organization."
Revillame is the host of ABS-CBN's noon time show "Wowowee" while Aquino is host of late-night show, SNN: Showbiz News Ngayon, plus the weekly entertainment news show, The Buzz. She is also part of the ABS-CBN soap opera, "Kung Tayo'y Magkakalayo."
'Go to SC for clarification'
Election lawyer Rudyard Avila told ANC's Dateline Philippines that celebrity endorsers can go to the Supreme Court (SC) and ask for a clarification of the Comelec's IRR of Fair Election Act.
Avila said celebrity endorsers who are being asked to take a leave of absence can file before the SC a petition for a declaratory relief, and ask for a clarification of the provision.
He added that there is a possibility that the SC may bend the provision and provide mass media personalities a clearer guideline on how to push through with regards to endorsing a candidate.
Leo Martinez, director-general of the Film Academy of the Philippines, said the Comelec's regulation only covers artists who are "employed" or are actually receiving payment for their political endorsements.
"I think the authoritative word there is employed. If you are not employed by a candiddate, you are not under the jurisdiction of that rule," Martinez said, adding that he agrees with calls for active and paid celebrity endorsers to go on leave for the whole duration of the campaign period.
The comedy and stage actor added that asking celebrities, who are not paid by candidates, to also leave mass media is a violation of their freedom of expression and their right to include themselves in the electoral process.
He reiterated that "unpaid" celebrities should be allowed to go up the stage and announce to the public his preference of a candidate.
"If that is what that law is saying, I want it clarified, who are those covered... I want to know who really is covered by that law. I think it's allowed [to endorse a candidate] if you are not employed," Martinez added.