Uncritical media, illegitimate election

Strategic Perspective
René B. Azurin

Posted on May 16, 2013

LISTENING TO TV anchors and news commentators congratulate Commission on Elections Chairman Sixto Brillantes, Jr. for his staging of the 2013 automated polls makes one painfully aware of how uncritical Philippine media is. For what, pray tell, is Brillantes being congratulated? For brazenly violating key provisions of our poll automation law? For decisions and actions that make stealing the vote in our automated polls much easier with no one being the wiser? For depriving the Filipino voter of the fundamental right to see how his vote is being counted? Hmmm, are the people supposed to function as the people’s watchdogs so utterly lacking in discernment, analytical ability, and judgment?

Well, uh, yes. The problem is that many media practitioners today are not intellectually prepared to deal with complex issues and are often too lazy to put in the work needed to prepare to deal with such issues. This is evident in the quality of our talk shows where the host is content to lob superficial "gimme" questions at a guest instead of engaging him/her in serious discussions that will illuminate difficult subjects or unmask hidden agendas. It is also evident in the quality of our news stories where reporters write (and editors print) what they are told by subjects without making the effort to study the case and challenge questionable assertions. In this situation, it is difficult to overcome the fact that much of media -- not just Philippine media, to be sure -- are owned by vested interests and exist mainly to sing paeans to the powerful, rich, or famous. For many media practitioners, it is enough to sing for whoever pays for their supper.

Doubtless, these factors were in play in the way the media treated the issue of our automated polls. Some media practitioners simply could not stand people who talked in what seemed like technical gobbledygook and just turned them off. Some simply could not understand the issues, even when these were simplified as much as possible. Some were simply too lazy to put in the work to understand the issues. Some were provided incentives to ignore the real issues and to just follow the approved story line. And some must have been told by the vested interests their newspaper or TV station represented not to offend the powers that pay for the ads.

And so, Philippine media uncritically bought into the deception perpetuated by Brillantes and his patrons that the 2013 automated elections were a "success." In reality, they were not. Without a public review of the source code of the programs used, the voting public cannot know how their votes were counted and, without "access to the count," there can be no transparency and, hence, no credibility. Without the personal digital signatures of the mandated-by-law election officials, there were no valid election returns and, hence, no legitimate way to proclaim winners. With non-specification rewritable CF memory cards and accessible ports on the PCOS machines, tampering of election results was made possible in unsecure locations all over the country. Indeed, even if Comelec (criminally) disabled all the mechanisms whereby voters might possibly validate and authenticate the results, it is becoming clear that wholesale electronic manipulation took place in these 2013 polls.

As first pointed out by political activist Ado Paglinawan, the way the 2013 election results came in was "highly suspicious." He correctly observed that, "from the smallest count to the biggest count, there is consistency in the space between the first 15 senatorial candidates…. The progression through the night is mathematically predictable, and is a statistical improbability." The nationwide trend observed by Mr. Paglinawan in the senatorial tally indicated to him that the count "was following a pre-programmed formula based on earlier pre-paid surveys, rather than the actual vote." It was clear to him, he wrote, "that an earlier decision of ranking had been predetermined and the proportion of votes had been pre-designated from a national perspective, with a total disregard for provincial and regional nuances…. From 10% of the vote to 60%, the tally has been running a consistent vote share. As the votes from different provinces came in, the voting pattern was identical for the senatorial positions, something contrary to historical experience in Philippine politics."

Former Comelec IT director Ernie del Rosario adds: "The progressive tallies follow some sort of deterministic linear equation devoid of the influence of any probabilistic parameter or variable. This can only mean one thing -- it is a pre-designed results reporting mechanism that fits the 9-3 survey instead of a tally of the actual votes. I will call it the 9-3 Formula. Notice that the rankings of the candidates in the entire tally (1st to 33rd place) from the time the first report was published to subsequent ones are practically unchanged. What happened to the individual candidates’ known bailiwicks that should have caused some ranking movements in the tallied results? Smoothened by the 9-3 linear formula?" Mr. del Rosario then wryly remarks, "Magdadaya rin lang ang mga ito, medyo sana lagyan nila ng konting pag-iisip [These guys who planned to cheat should have maybe put a little more thought into it]."

Indeed, the count at the PPCRV operations center was suspiciously seen to be coming in almost 10 times faster than the count at the Namfrel center, presumably an impossibility since both entities are accredited citizens’ arms of Comelec and supposedly getting exactly the same reports. The sudden stoppage of the by-then incredibly bloated count of the PPCRV at around 9 of Monday evening was the result of the realization that the tallying program used incorporated a massive error. This could not have been a "formatting error" as claimed by PPCRV spokesman Ana de Villa-Singson -- an arithmetic (dagdag) operation was performed, hence it was a program error. Then, in her scramble to distance PPCRV from the error, Ms. Singson revealed that it was a Smartmatic problem and that it was a Smartmatic technician, Marlon Garcia (a Venezuelan), who was fixing it.

This raises the question: What is a Smartmatic technician doing fiddling with the canvassing program of a supposedly independent citizens’ watchdog? Then: Why was PPCRV, supposedly independent, using a Smartmatic canvassing program? And: Why did this Smartmatic program -- one of those never publicly reviewed -- contain such a monstrous error? And: Why was this canvassing program (which should have been sealed into place prior to the elections) so unsecure that it could be accessed and altered by a Smartmatic technician while canvassing was already in progress? One implication of all this is that PPCRV is not an independent citizens’ watchdog. What it clearly looks like is a lapdog of the Smartmatic-Comelec conspiracy.

Finally, why is it that every time Comelec Chairman Brillantes speaks he seems to be screwing the Filipino people just a bit more? His announcement Monday evening, just as precinct results were beginning to be transmitted to canvassing centers, that Comelec would completely suspend the official canvassing of votes until 10 a.m. the following morning because "pagod na rin kami [we are already tired]" defies reason. For only one day every year -- actually every three years -- the Filipino people expect election officials to work overtime… and he is too tired to do so? Following his example, the teachers manning precincts all over the country would be justified in walking off their posts in the early evening of election day because they would have been certainly more overworked by that time than a Comelec chairman who can easily have been sleeping in his air-conditioned office all day.

Brillantes’ thin excuse cannot help but intensify suspicions. The whole rationale for automating our polls is to get instant results… and he decides to defer the official canvass because he is tired? Results were being transmitted right then (as polls were closing) and would be coming in throughout the night, so why delay the canvass? Was this to allow prior review of the results so that these could be altered before the "official" canvass? Even an uncritical media ought to wonder. The critical already realize that what we just had was a thoroughly illegitimate election.