POSTSCRIPT / March 8, 2009 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Humans, not machines, are key to honest polls

THREE ELEMENTS: In evaluating the approval of the P11.3-billion outlay for the “full automation” (actually a misnomer) of the 2010 elections, we must consider three elements in the coming polls: Hardware, Software and Peopleware.

After buying or renting the desired hardware or equipment, we still cannot be assured of honest elections — if the other elements of software and peopleware are not properly synched with the hardware.

Hardware is everything that we can touch — the computers, the monitor screens, scanners, printers, and the like. Note that they require certain operating conditions such as being free from dust and moisture and working within a certain temperature range.

Software, which is not tangible, includes the operating system and the programs or instructions given the machines to do what we want them to do. These unseen commands are critical. We could end up with computerized cheating in the name of “full automation.”

Peopleware is the human factor. The expensive machines deployed all over the archipelago will not function properly without trained personnel operating and maintaining them. Preparing this army of technicians is a Herculean job.

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TRAINING PEOPLE: Peopleware can be construed to also include voters, politicians and other human beings who have to interact with the machines and the electoral process. While computers are more or less predictable, people are not.

Voters will have to be educated on their civic duties and the use of the machines. There will be a percentage of errors and breakdowns considering the conditions in the field where the summer heat, dust, unstable power, cheaters and vandals abound.

Even Comelec officials, from Chairman Jose Melo down, who may not be techno-savvy will have to train also, so they can understand what is going on and competently supervise the process and deliver credible results in record time.

With the Abalos scandal hounding it, the Melo Comelec cannot afford to fumble on this multibillion-peso make-or-break undertaking next year. We wish the poll body, especially its well-meaning chairman, good luck.

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REMEDIES GALORE: As some congressmen who must have been struck by a blinding light from above now say, the House bill creating a Right to Reply to critical media reports and comments is as good as dead.

Having realized the error of passing a law abridging the freedom of the press, many of its proponents have backed out. Now if there is no House bill to complement the approved Senate version, there will be no enrolled copy to send to the President for action.

But even without that bill or law, anybody hit by false and malicious media reports not only can reply but can also sue and punish his tormentors. There are many remedies, which can be classified roughly into administrative and legal.

Under administrative remedies, we have the open mind and the open pages/air time of the media. Hypersensitive to accusations of being unfair, professional media are ever ready to give space and time to the other side. They often do even without being asked.

Under legal remedies, we have laws, including those on privacy and libel, that can be invoked to force the righting and punishing of a wrong committed by media. As we write this, numerous libel suits are pending before our courts.

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PUBLIC FIGURES: Almost everything relevant has been said in the public debate over the bills. We non-lawyers in media are happy that many individuals steeped in the law have buttressed our arguments with legal points.

Lawyer Ernesto B. Francisco Jr., who teaches constitutional law at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, said in a paper:

“At first glance, the proposed right of reply legislation seems to be a valid proposition since it offers a fair chance to the public to reply to published or aired accusations or criticisms. However, a closer examination will show that far from bestowing the public with a right, the end result may be to protect public officials from valid accusations and criticisms from the public.

“But public officials are public figures who ‘have lost, to some extent at least, their right to privacy’ and who should not be too ‘thin-skinned with reference to comment to (their) official acts.’ Moreover, this proposed legislation, far from serving its avowed ends, may also be creating a boon to corruption.”

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PRIOR RESTRAINT: Commenting on Senate Bill 2150 entitled “An Act Granting the Right of Reply and Providing Penalties for Violation Thereof,” Francisco said:

“The publication or airing of a reply free of charge will be required not only for any accusation of a crime or offense that is published or aired, but for practically all kinds of criticism, considering that the term ‘criticism’ is described as ‘criticism by innuendo, suggestion or rumor for any lapse in behavior in public or private life.’

“Moreover, SB 2150, if enacted into law, will be a prohibited ‘prior restraint’ proscribed by the Constitution whose Bill of Rights prohibits the enactment of any law that abridges the freedom of speech, of expression and of the press.

“Black’s Law Dictionary defines ‘prior restraint’ as ‘any scheme which gives public officials the power to deny use of a forum in advance of its actual expression.’

“Worse, this kind of legislation … might force media not to publish or air accusations or criticisms for fear that the resultant loss of revenues from compliance with such legislation — which will require substantial use of valuable space or air time — and from the cost of compliance with the stiff penalty for every failure or refusal to publish or air a reply.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 8, 2009)

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