MANILA – The Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday has asked the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to give its side on the petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida questioning the memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the poll body and online news publisher, Rappler Inc.

“The Court En Banc during its deliberations today ordered the respondents to file their respective comments on the petition and application for a TRO (temporary restraining order) within a non-extendable period of 10 days from receipt of the order,” SC spokesperson Brian Hosaka said in a message to newsmen.

Respondents should file their comments via personal service to the Court, Hosaka added.

The Comelec has deferred the partnership, according to the office of Commissioner Socorro Inting, who was the poll body's acting chair after state lawyers last March 7 asked the tribunal to void the MOA citing the online media outlet's foreign funding.

Under the MOA, Rappler will field "fact-checkers" leading to the May 9 national and local elections.

Calida said the MOA is "void for being violative of the Constitution and other laws, not to mention it being onerous to the Government and the Republic".

The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) previously urged the Comelec to rescind the MOA within five days or until March 4, 2022.

Calida said a TRO was sought due to "the urgency of the situation and the transcendental importance of the issues involving matters of public interest".

“It is beyond belief that Comelec has allowed a foreign non-registered entity to interfere in the conduct of the country’s elections,” the SolGen said, citing that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler’s certificates of incorporation in 2018 and upheld it last year.

The SolGen argued that even if Rappler were treated as an existing corporation, "it is a foreign mass media entity managed by an American citizen and whose operations are funded and/or controlled by foreign entities that include Omidyar Network Fund L.L.C.”.

"It is primarily based on this fact that the MOA violates the constitutional and statutory proscription against foreign interference in the country’s elections, the OSG petition said.

The Solgen said Comelec essentially “co-shared” with Rappler its power to decide on all questions affecting the elections, ”a clear usurpation of its sole power to decide on such questions under Section 2 (3), Article IX-C of the Constitution” which states that the "poll body will “decide, except those involving the right to vote, all questions affecting elections, including determination of the number and location of polling places, appointment of election officials and inspectors, and registration of voters”.

Part 1, Paragraph 5 of the MOA authorized Rappler to alert Comelec on any election-related posts in social media and with the sole discretion to determine what it deems “false, misleading and harmful information.”

Such power granted by Comelec in favor of Rappler clearly constitutes prior restraint on freedom of speech and of expression, the petition said.

Rappler was granted access to key information and confidential data of registered voters absent any proper and narrowly focused safeguards on the retrieval, use, and storage of such data.

The MOA also grants to Rappler unqualified access to “data of untransmitted votes to all the canvassing centers due to lowering of threshold, and such other technical issues in the Automated Elections System” without any safeguards on how the Comelec or Rappler will protect the sanctity of the untransmitted votes.

The SolGen cited an "endless possibility" that "Rappler may control any election narrative that suits the agenda of the firm’s foreign owners which will not be for the benefit of the Filipino people.

The SolGen also said Rappler is enmeshed in various criminal cases such as cybercrimes, violation of the Anti-Dummy Law, violation of the Securities Regulation Code, and tax evasion.

Rappler’s president and chief operating officer, Maria Ressa, was previously convicted of cyber-libel but it was later dismissed.

The National Press Club of the Philippines has called out Rappler's authority to fact-check election-related posts by any citizen due to its "spotty record when it comes to dissemination of truthful information considering its record of gross bias in its reportage that resulted to its current legal woes".

Calida emphasized the urgency to restrain Rappler as there are only two months left before the elections.

“Every Filipino deserves and aspires for free, orderly, honest, peaceful, and credible elections. However, these constitutional goals cannot be attained if the Comelec is allowed to continue its void and unconstitutional partnership with Rappler. The Rappler-Comelec MOA must be declared null and void,” the petition read.

“Rappler cannot act as king, priest, and noble -- all at the same time -- forcibly feeding the Filipinos what information it thinks is fact,” it added. (PNA)