By Corina Oliquino i FilAm Star Correspondent

MANILA – The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) ranked senatorial bets Imelda “Imee” Marcos, Harry Roque, Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go and Manuel “Mar” Roxas II as among the top spenders, with accumulated PHP 2.4 billion combined pre-campaign spending.

The audit, which covers 20 candidates listed in Pulse Asia’s latest nationwide survey for the May 2019 Senatorial Elections from December 14 to 21, 2018, also probe candidates’ active engagement in social media.

“This audit offers information reflected from scans and observations based on the curated social-media posts of the candidates throughout the month of January,” PCIJ noted.

“The key figures presented, notably, fan or follower base and number of posts and engagement, are the data gathered when this report was written on February 8. There could be discrepancies in the key figures after this date because the fan or follower base and additional new posts of the candidates may have already either increased or decreased during the intervening days,” PCIJ added in its disclaimer.

PCIJ also noted that the four were with the lowest net worth, biggest liabilities, and the smallest cash on hand based on their latest Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth.

“Possible sources of those millions of pesos poured into pre-campaign ads include hidden wealth, public funds, and even indirect bribery from private donors,” PCIJ noted.

Marcos, Roque and Go
According to PCIJ, the 12 candidates under the Hugpong ng Pagbabago-Partido Demokratikong Pilipino (HNP-PDP-LABAN), endorsed by President Rodrigo Duterte, incurred a combined adspend of PHP 1.32 billion in the last 13 months to January 2019 as monitored by Nielsen Media’s rate card of media agencies.

“A third of this total or PHP 422,498,647 consists of ads purchased by and for Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, the biggest spender thus far among all 61 candidates for senator,” PCIJ noted, adding Go is the poorest of the top spenders with a declared net worth of only PHP 12.85 million as of his December 2017 SALN.

“His P422-million total ad buys amount to 3,287 percent of his net worth,” the audit noted.

“In January 2019, Nielsen Media’s monitoring of TV ads only listed Go as the product, brand, and advertiser in at least 1,016 ad spots equivalent to 29,940 seconds of airtime exposure at a cost of PHP 247.9 million,” it added.

Meanwhile, Marcos and Roque, who previously quit the race, are the second and third biggest spenders.

According to the audit, Marcos, currently the third-term governor of Ilocos Norte, accumulated PHP 413,160,423 worth of ads from January 2018 to January 2019, with her net worth only amounting to PHP 29.29 million and cash on hand of only PHP 2.45 million in her December 2017 SALN.

Roque, on the other hand, acquired PHP 174,013,944 or PHP 75.1 million more than his declared net worth of PHP 9.87 million as of December 2017.

Moreover, the Opposition’s Otso-Diretso! Team and its three candidates Roxas, Sen. Paolo Benigno ‘Bam’ Aquino IV and Rep. Gary Alejano acquired PHP 132,256,000 according to Nielsen Media’s monitoring reports from January 2018 to January 2019.

No regulation on campaign ad content
In a report by The Philippine Star, despite the billions of pesos spent by senatorial candidates during pre-campaign season, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) insists its position that it “cannot regulate negative campaigning.”

“We do not regulate content. But we do require candidates to submit reports on the cost of the use of social media associates,” Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said during an interview with The Chiefs on Cignal TV’s One News, referring to requirements candidates and their political parties filed under their Statements of Contributions and Expenditures.

Namfrel Treasurer Lito Averia backed the statement, noting “content of campaign propaganda cannot be controlled because that is also in the ambit of free expression.”

“That’s why it is difficult to regulate content. Comelec is shying away from it. From my personal stand point, the way I see it, it is a no-no,” Averia added.

“The danger in controlling content is you might also end up infringing on freedom of expression. Of course, there could be a noble intention behind it – to help raise the level of discourse,” Kontra Daya convenor Danilo Arao said according to The Philippine Star, noting the challenge now is how to properly educate voters in terms of appreciating content.

“For now, the most effective way is still public voter education. We have to teach them what to expect on election day, the campaign regulations. They should know their candidates not based on personality but on platform,” Lente Project Director Brizza Rosales said, noting the need to “capacitate the public so they can properly discern who to vote.”

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