Up Close and Personal: Bloggers in the “People’s Palace”
“WE’RE IN interesting times wherein we are seeing bloggers with names become bigger than anyone… It’s a phenomenon that we have to embrace, at the same time we also have to control,” Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said in a February 20 press release.
Social media played a key role in the 2016 elections, propelling former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency. Seeing online platforms’ capacity to spread information and shape opinion, Andanar signed on August 8 Department Order (DO) No. 15, titled “Interim Social Media Practitioner Accreditation.” This came after the ASEAN Ministerial Meetings held from August 2 to 8, during which bloggers and “social media influencers” were allowed to cover alongside mainstream media.
This was not entirely new. The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) held the #AllMediaPH town hall discussion in UP Diliman in February 23, presenting a 10-page social media policy draft to bloggers, internet rights advocates and members of the media.
Some bloggers in the forum had questions about some provisions of the policy. Why are profanities not allowed? Does the number of followers necessarily determine credibility? How can bloggers be assured that PCOO will not dictate or regulate the content they produce?
Six months after this forum, DO 15 made official the accreditation of social media personalities in official events such as the ASEAN meetings, without addressing these issues.
A Paper Thin Policy
Even before DO 15, Andanar and his office had engaged bloggers and other prominent figures in social media as though they were journalists working for news organizations. They were identified as the “social media delegation” for the president’s various trips abroad.
Kris Ablan, PCOO Assistant Secretary for Policy and Legislative Affairs, said in a Palace briefing last August 10, “I insisted with Assistant Secretary (for Social Media) Mocha Uson and Secretary Andanar that we have to come out at least with an interim or probationary social media accreditation policy rather than without. Because without, then it’s done on a case-to-case basis.”
Ablan said Uson, her staff and bloggers opted for a “more populist, open accreditation process.” Based on the DO, “social media practitioners who generate news and information regarding the activities of the president” can be accredited if they are Filipino citizens, at least 18 years of age and have at least 5,000 followers in any social media platform.
PCOO’s welcome of citizen journalists is commendable. But the qualifications are too broad including anyone with a platform in the internet. As official venues, travel expenses and other resources are often limited, what governs the prioritization for accreditation, the number of slots given to journalists and to bloggers producing content on their own? The volume of bloggers covering public events would cause logistical problems and may displace journalists from established news organizations.
Ablan also said that the probationary policy was crafted to show that the Palace is open both to Duterte supporters and critics. But with no mention in the DO of specific criteria that bloggers have to meet in terms of quality of content, how can the blogging community be assured PCOO will accredit those who are critical of government and counter government propaganda?
Carlos Conde, CMFR board member, wrote in PJR Reports, “While I am certain that most bloggers do not entertain the notion that what they do can be considered journalism, there are a few but vociferous who do, exploiting the sins and shortcomings of the mainstream press to promote themselves as the alternative to mainstream media.”
It now becomes a huge challenge to the Social Media Office to exercise fairness, since Asec. Uson, in her own blog, openly insults and discredits those who criticize the Duterte administration, including journalists.
Bloggers, Then and Now
According to bloggers, Malacañang granted Blog Watch access to the presidential inauguration of Benigno Aquino III in 2010, making the group the first to cover a presidential event that used to be open only to traditional media. Noemi Dado, co-founder of Blog Watch, wrote in February 2017 that blogger accreditation “did not materialize.” She said the Malacañang Press Corps (MPC) objected to the idea, but Blog Watch still got invited to meetings and Palace events from 2013 to 2014.
Dado did not see the non-approval of blogger accreditation as a “big deal,” since Blog Watch “does not cover the news.” She said she “did not find the need to cover everything about the President.”
The present administration, meanwhile, has the online community to thank for their continuous and voluntary support. It can be expected that the government will find a way to engage the citizens, especially those who voted for Duterte.
Inclusivity is all well and good, but who gets inside the circle?
Prior to the drafting of a social media policy, Andanar told Rappler in an interview that, “There’s been a demand from all of these bloggers to cover the Palace since the President stepped into office, June 30, knowing the context of how the President was elected and a major factor also was the help of the bloggers who helped the President.”
President Duterte had welcomed blogger-supporters in Malacañang on February 7, taking them to a tour inside his residence and hosting a dinner for them. A press release published on the RTVM website said one of the bloggers, Rey Joseph Nieto of Thinking Pinoy, suggested that the president form a “special documenting team who could follow him and record his daily activities.”
In his Manila Bulletin column, “Dear fellow Filipino bloggers,” Tonyo Cruz disagreed, saying “there’s no such clamor for accreditation.”
He said, “When you read the documents released by the Presidential Communications Office, you would get the sense that Martin Andanar and Mocha Uson apparently think blogging and ‘social media practitioners’ only started in 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte campaigned and won, and that theirs are the only ‘best practice’ they could turn to.”
Is the issue of accreditation just a way to legitimize social media supporters of Duterte and tap them as apologists for the administration? The public won’t get an answer until the contentious provisions in the PCOO’s social media policy are addressed.