THE good news is that Filipino voters are becoming more discerning and many among the mass media are improving their coverage of elections. Yet the same positive assessment cannot be said of the electoral exercise itself and the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

Major players in the media community — the Philippine Daily Inquirer, ABS-CBN and GMA 7madepro-active efforts to broaden coverage of independent candidates and small parties, and to provide the public information on the advocacies and programs of individual candidates,” said Luis Teodoro, journalism professor and deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).

View Teodoro’s presentation on the CMFR monitor of media coverage of the 2007 elections.

The media’s role and power in shaping opinions and decisions, acknowledged Imus Bishop Luis Tagle, have become more pronounced during elections, with candidates relying heavily on the media to inform the public about their agenda and influence voter’s preferences.

Read Tagle’s speech “Faith and Fire: The transforming power of mass media in Philippine elections.

Teodoro and Tagle were both speakers at a media forum organized by the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) in order to conduct a dialogue between the election watchdog and the media.

Across the nation, urban and provincial media practitioners clamored for election-related training. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) conducted 21 election trainings from March to May in the newsrooms of the Inquirer and, as well as in communities in Ilocos, Cotabato, and Zamboanga.

Community journalists remain the most vulnerable to corruption, said Inday Espina-Varona, head of NUJP’s commission on external affairs and editor in chief of the Philippine Graphic. A community journalist making only P1,000, she said, would need to derive the rest of his or her media outfit’s income from advertising. Yet these ads are solicited from no less than the same sources whom community journalists regularly interview for their stories.

While Espina-Varona stressed that poverty was not a justification for accepting bribes, she added that the working conditions of media personnel, especially community practitioners, should be improved in order to decrease their vulnerability to corruption.

“One of our biggest battles is to prevent corruption, to prevent payolas from coming in,” related Maria Ressa, head of ABS-CBN’s news and current affairs departments.

“Media understands the problems, we’re trying to solve them. And part of the changes that we’ve put in place in the media is to make standards and ethics a critical (tool) to hold us accountable,” Ressa added.

Ressa believes that there is a global clamor for transparency in leadership, whether it be in journalism, the private or public sectors.

With regard to elections, Ressa said that the political exercise has greatly fallen short. “The best phrase I can use to describe the way our elections are run is…’planned mismanagement.'”

At this, poll commissioner Rene Sarmiento frowned. Like Ressa, he was invited to the forum as one of the reactors.

“I accepted the post hoping to make a little difference,” Sarmiento said. Whether or not he made that difference, he added, he did not know, considering the low estimation he had been subjected to under public scrutiny.

Dubbed the most trusted Comelec commissioner, Sarmiento was assigned to oversee elections in Region IX and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Maguindanao. Many doubted that even with the best intentions, he would be able to ensure the conduct of clean polls in a region that had a history of problems when it came to elections.

Sarmiento immediately declared a failure of elections in 13 towns in Lanao del Sur after the May polls were conducted.

Yet the Inquirer quoted Ramon Casiple, Institute for Political and Electoral Reform (IPER) executive director, as saying that Sarmiento may have unwittingly played into the hands of political operators who wanted special elections. Sarmiento co-founded IPER with Casiple.

For her part, PPCRV chairperson Henrietta de Villa who monitored the special polls in Lanao del Sur had this to say: “Everything, everything that elections should not be I saw happening there.”

Pandemonioum reigned in Kapai, the first municipality that de Villa visited. She said that inside the polling precincts, there was shouting, pushing, and fistfights. Outside, there were gunshots.

In the municipality of Masiu, youngsters aged 16 and 17 voted openly, some even attempting to vote as many as three times. Wads of envelopes with money were blatantly distributed at the entrances to polling precincts.

The PPCRV has recommended that the Comelec conduct a thorough cleansing of its rank and file, and revisit the “Hello, Garci” controversy” if only to rid itself of any and all shadows connected with it.”

Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos Sr. could also face a fourth impeachment bid over allegedly brokering a $329-million project for the national broadband network if a group in the House of Representatives is able to gather enough solid evidence.

“There is growing public skepticism over electoral institutions like the (Comelec) and therefore, over what elections can achieve in terms of changing leaders and government policies and programs,” CMFR’s Teodoro said.

One of the consequences of the 2004 elections, he lamented, was the further decline of public trust in such key institutions as the Comelec, the police, the military and the presidency, which all figured in the “Hello, Garci” scandal.

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