Fair elections and the ethics of modernity

The law has been there since 2001, but its provisions have been unevenly enforced.  This is true of many of our laws – many provisions remain dormant until the situations for which they were specifically crafted actually surface as problems, or the conditions for their enforcement become available.  Such is Republic Act No. 9006, more commonly known as “The Fair Election Act.”

Sec. 6, paragraph 6 of this law 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: Provided, That any media practitioner who is an official of a political party or a member of the campaign staff of a candidate or political party shall not use his/her time or space to favor any candidate or political party.

One look at this provision quickly shows that it is trying to cover in one paragraph a broad range of individuals and activities that are qualitatively different from one another.  It is easy enough to determine who is a candidate, although the period when someone legally becomes a candidate was a crucial point in a recent Supreme Court decision on premature campaigning.  But how does one define a “campaign volunteer”?  Similarly, while it is easy enough to identify a “mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter…,” we cannot say the same for “mass media personality”.

If the list specifically refers only to people who work in the mass media, does it include “talents”, or does it apply only to regular employees?  GMA-7 says they will make sure it will apply to both talents and employees; ABS-CBN says they will enforce it only among their regular employees.

Despite the ambiguities in the law, I nevertheless think that the purpose of the provision quoted above is valid and worthy of appreciation.  But perhaps, instead of focusing on the enumeration of people to be covered, it might be more useful for the Commission on Elections and the public in general to pay more careful attention to the list of prohibited acts and what they have in common. This issue is of immense interest not only to lawyers but to students of social change as well who see in these developments a welcome shift to what we may call the ethics of modernity.

The ethics of modernity revolves around the notion of differentiation of functions, which is modern society’s response to problems brought about by the growing complexity of social life.  Failure to differentiate produces conflict-of-interest situations that not only create insoluble dilemmas for individuals but, more importantly, adversely affect the functioning of other institutions.  We have seen what kinds of problems are created when politicians bring their business concerns into the act of legislation.

As persons, all of us participate in a variety of institutional settings – the family, the school, the Church, the government, the market, the mass media, etc.  We are, at one time or other, parents or children, teachers or students, worshippers or clerics, citizens or public officials, and columnists or showbiz actors.  These are multiple roles we play, juggle, and try to balance in our daily life, hoping that their demands do not clash with one another.  But we are not alone in this effort; institutions are also slowly moving in the same direction.  The increasing differentiation of institutions, marked by the sharpening of boundaries and protected by distinct operational codes, has made it easier for individuals to navigate their way in the complex modern society of our time.

This separation of roles is often facilitated by the separation of locations.  Thus, we leave our homes when we go to school or go to work, and government employees are asked not to park official vehicles in their homes.  In this way, we are not tempted to mix roles and resources.  But this physical separation of spheres is not always available to us.   Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where more than one role is activated because the setting itself is ambivalent.  Laws and ethical codes are there to help us sort out our relationships and obligations.

More than just as an attempt to level the political playing field, I view the contested provisions of the Fair Election Act as an attempt to modernize our politics.  However, I think that the Comelec errs in demanding immediate full compliance with a law that is being suddenly enforced after nine years of dormancy.  What I believe it can demand at this point is for mass media celebrities and opinion makers who are candidates or active endorsers of candidates to resign or take a leave from their professions for the duration of the campaign.  Or, at the very least, the Comelec can admonish endorsers who have their own programs or columns not to use their media space for outright campaigning.

Where modern institutions have not fully taken root, the choice of doing the correct thing rests entirely with the individual.  Here, compliance is less a matter of law than of ethics.  I mean ethics in David Couzens Hoy’s sense — “obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but are neither forced on one or are enforceable.”  But, why be ethical then?  Credibility, if for nothing else: because we want others to be able to rely on the truthfulness of what we say or do.