The Manila Times : Comelec must make an example of campaign violators

9 October 2021

By The Manila Times

AT the very moment he was filing his certificate of candidacy for the office of president this week, former senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. found himself at the center of an unwelcome controversy when the emergency alert system of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) was hijacked and used to broadcast a pro-Marcos campaign message by as yet unidentified perpetrators. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) should use the incident to send a clear message to all candidates for next May's elections that there will be zero tolerance for illegal campaigning.

For its part, the Marcos campaign organization denied having anything to do with the incident and condemned it, suggested that it might have been carried out by someone attempting to discredit the former senator, and echoed calls for an immediate investigation by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) and law enforcement agencies.

Unless such an investigation proves otherwise, we would take the campaign at its word. Misusing the emergency alert system is so incredibly irresponsible and dangerous that no campaign organization, unless it is staffed by complete lunatics, would even dream of employing such a tactic. Whether the act was carried out by someone trying to make Mr. Marcos look bad, as his campaign suggested, or it was done by a badly misguided, overzealous Marcos supporter, is something the investigation will have to determine.

Regardless of who the perpetrator may be, that investigation must be carried out swiftly, transparently, and result in the harshest possible consequences provided by law. The election campaign for thousands of offices across the country is only just beginning now that the filing of candidacies has taken place. It is imperative that the Comelec act aggressively to nip illegal campaigning in the bud, so to speak, and thereby help to ensure clean and fair elections. If the national poll body does not, it will quickly lose control of the situation.

Illegal, unethical or abusive campaign practices have, after all, been an unfortunate regular feature of most elections. There are extensive rules governing when, where and in what manner candidates may or may not conduct campaign activities, but inconsistent or delayed enforcement of the rules along with relatively mild penalties for infractions have led most political candidates to regard them as mere suggestions. To be fair to the Comelec, this is not the result of a lack of intent on the poll body's part, but rather a lack of capacity. However, even if the Comelec were given substantially more manpower and resources, there are simply too many candidates vying for election to monitor all of them continuously.

That is why it is imperative that the Comelec address the emergency alert incident, as well as any other violations that may have already occurred, swiftly and harshly. The poll body cannot constantly monitor every campaign's every move (and it should not have to), so the next best thing is to send a clear, unmistakable message to political candidates, campaign organizations and the public that the risk of engaging in illegal campaigning overwhelmingly outweighs the rewards.

Along those lines, it would be sensible for Congress and the Comelec to review existing campaign laws to determine if they are effective, or if revisions need to be made. That effort, however, will likely have to wait until after next year's elections, and would have to take into account the outcomes from the campaign season that is just beginning now.

Likewise, the incident that inadvertently — or so it would appear — tangled former senator Marcos in a controversy on the day of his filing his candidacy for president raises some alarming safety and security concerns, regardless of whether political campaigning was involved or not. The emergency alert system is vital for broadcasting warnings and advisories about actual emergencies to the public, particularly those citizens who do not have constant internet access. The revelation that it is potentially vulnerable to anyone with a mobile transmitter, which is what authorities believe was used to hijack the system, is quite disturbing. We are certain the NDRRMC and the NTC do not need the reminder, but they should act swiftly to determine what happened and take the necessary steps to safeguard the system.