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Commercial ads of politicians partisan activitty but not premature campaigning

Written by Aries C. Rufo
Thursday, 19 June 2008

A politician’s commercial ad or endorsement may not be premature campaigning as defined by election laws but they are certainly a form of partisan political activity.

The Supreme Court, on two occasions, has ruled that a commercial endorsement by politicians is not necessarily a form of premature campaigning, nor when they push personal advocacies in mass media.

Legally, they are off the hook, the High Court said.

But is it ethical?
Commercial endorsements that indirectly promote a politician outside of the election period may not be punishable under election laws but they are certainly unethical, said former Senate president Jovito Salonga.

In response to our query, Salonga referred us to RA 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, which he authored in 1991.

Sec. 4 (b) of RA 6713 defined professionalism that is expected from public officials. "Public officials and employees shall perform and discharge with the highest degree of excellence, professionalism, intelligence and skill. They shall enter public service with utmost devotion and dedication to duty. They shall endeavor to discourage wrong perception of their roles as dispensers or peddlers of undue patronage."

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has been critical of the product endorsements and institutional and advocacy ads of her colleagues, describing them as a form of premature campaigning. She recently urged the public not to vote for these politicians and for the poll commission to disqualify them for violating election laws.

From detergents to skin whitener
With only less than two years before the 2010 national elections, commercial endorsements of some politicians, many of them in the Senate, have been surfacing in the mass media.

They include Senators Mar Roxas II and Pia Cayetano for laundry detergents, Panfilo Lacson for a skin care center, Richard Gordon for a bath soap, Loren Legarda for a skin whitener and Francis Escudero for a health supplement.

As for advocacies, Senate President Manuel Villar has his own TV commercial, calling for the protection of overseas Filipino workers. Legarda has an environment-protection ad.

Outside of the Senate, Vice-President Noli de Castro has been promoting the low-cost housing loan program of Pag-ibig. De Castro, who has been topping pubic opinion polls for the 2010 presidential race, is also chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council.

No sanctions
Commission on Elections legal department director Ferdinand Rafanan said no sanctions can be imposed on the politicians making commercial endorsements since these are done outside an election campaign period.

While the ad exposure may help in their visibility to the public, it cannot be strictly considered premature campaigning, he said.

The most recent case decided by the Supreme Court was Lanot vs Eusebio wherein then Pasig Mayor Vicente Eusebio was accused by rival, Henry Lanot, of committing premature campaigning during the 2004 national polls.

Lanot charged that Eusebio engaged in premature campaigning when he caused, among other acts, the publication of a political advertisement and the display of billboards extolling his governance, even before the official campaign period began.

At that time, the Comelec set the deadline in the filing of certificate of candidacy (COC) on Jan. 3, 2004, way ahead of the original schedule. The official campaign period for the local race, however, was set on March 24.

The Comelec found Eusebio guilty of premature campaigning but the SC reversed the ruling.

The Court established that Eusebio was not yet a "candidate" when he committed the alleged acts, as the main intention behind the early filing of candidacy was only to give Comelec enough time to prepare for the poll automation.

Without this deadline, the Court observed that Eusebio would have filed his COC on the last day of the filing, like most other politicians.

‘Indirect promotion of candidacy’
While the SC cleared Eusebio of premature campaigning, there was no doubt however to the Court’s mind that Eusebio’s acts constitute a partisan political activity.

"Acts committed by Eusebio prior to his being a candidate, even if constituting election campaigning or partisan political activities are not punishable under Section 80 of the Omnibus Election Code. Such acts are protected as part of freedom of expression of a citizen before he becomes a candidate for elective public office," the SC said.

Another ruling which may apply to the present criticism on the incumbent senators is the Chavez vs Comelec case handed down in August 2004.

The case revolved on the injunction sought by former Solicitor Frank Chavez questioning the resolution of the Comelec ordering the removal of posters, commercial billboards of candidates also during the 2004 election campaign. Like the present crop of senators, Chavez, who was then seeking a senatorial seat, has been tapped months earlier to endorse a clothing line and a plastic product. He also had his own billboard on Roxas Blvd. promoting a game and amusement parlor.

In opposing the removal of his billboards and other visual media endorsements, Chavez argued that these were for purely product endorsements "and do not announce nor solicit any support for his candidacy."

The Court however was not convinced.

While the justices agreed that it was within Chavez’s right to enter into commercial contracts, the billboards featuring his image however already "assumed partisan political character" when he sought political office.

Such billboards, the SC said "indirectly promoted his candidacy."

Delicadeza
The SC went further in dissecting the phenomenon of commercial endorsements and billboards of politicians. The Court said it could be used to circumvent the rule against premature campaigning.

In upholding the power of the Comelec to remove such billboards during the campaign period, the SC said a scenario is possible where "an individual intending to run for public office within the next few months, could pay private corporations to use him as their image with the intention of familiarizing the public with his name and image even before the start of the campaign period."

Senate minority floor leader Aquilino Pimentel, asked to comment on the commercial endorsements of politicians, said "it is up to the individual senator" whether they should desist from engaging in such commercial contracts.

"It is a matter of delicadeza. I cannot impose my own set of standards on the other senators," Pimentel said. With reports from Jenny Aguilar (abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak)

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