Media and the SONA 2017
THE STATE of the Nation Address (SONA) serves as a scorecard for both the president and the public to assess government performance. Government and the people also look to this ritual speech as a source of direction and guidance as to where the leader is taking the country. This may be the second SONA for President Duterte, but it is actually the first time for him to do a self-assessment of his performance in office. In 2016, he was barely a month into his administration which made his SONA a mere reprise of his campaign promises.
Duterte’s style moves most of his public speeches away from a written script to much extemporaneous talk and adlib. He has been known to forego entirely a written speech in hand. Even when he sticks to the text at the start, more often than not, he eventually goes free-style, speaking off the cuff.
Not a few of these statements have left his own officials in a quandary, often contradicting each other about what they thought the president said. Even the president’s spokesperson has admitted that the president sometimes fails to be clear, instructing the press to use their “creative imagination” to interpret his meaning.
This year’s SONA presentation was no exception. Duterte read a prepared speech for 24 minutes before going off script, shifting between his personal comments and the formal speech throughout the two hours (120 minutes) that he spoke.
This particular habit of this president imposes on the media the task of trying to figure out the meaning of the president’s words, to note some context that may help the public understand the point of what he is saying. But it is as much media’s obligation to observe when the president fails to make sense, to question the truth of what he is saying, to present the inconsistencies of his statements or the lack of factual basis of his assertions.
To cite, repeat or record the statements without critical analysis is a failure of the media’s mandate to help citizens think and act on public issues.
The 2017 SONA echoed Duterte’s previous public statements, most notable of which include his continuing resolve to pursue his war on illegal drugs and his decision to implement martial law in Mindanao which was extended to the end of 2017. The president anounced on policy directions already in motion; calling Congress to approve his tax reform bill, calling out mining companies on the need to protect the environment which voiced the rhetoric of former DENR head Regina Lopez, asking the Supreme Court to cancel the TRO on the release of two specific contraceptives regulated under the Reproductive Health Law, urging Congress to review existing procurement laws and to act on pending legislations for the reimposition of the death penalty.
His off-script talk vented anger about human rights as an issue; his critics which include Sen. Leila de Lima and parties criticizing his drug war; the media, specifically ABS-CBN and this time around, Rappler; the Left and Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP); the seizure of the Balangiga bells by the Americans in 1901, among others.
CMFR monitored the coverage of broadcast networks ABS-CBN 2, CNN Philippines, GMA-7 and TV5, as well as select online news websites from July 24 to July 25.
The media’s coverage of Duterte’s second SONA was straightforward. The media however was given two surprise turns which probably set apart this event from the usual. But this was all the president’s doing and the camera teams simply had to follow him as he proved indeed how different he is from his predecessors.
Media noted how there had never been any president in the past that approached protest rallies as Duterte did, under an umbrella held over his head by his close-in security. But Duterte being Duterte, he talked to them from a stage, telling them how much he had done to pursue peace, calling their attention to the Leftist members of his Cabinet who are their representatives, and finally, berating them for the NPA’s ambush attacks on his Presidential Security Group (PSG). His final words: “Sige, sigaw kayo hanggang maubos ‘yang boses ninyo (Go ahead, shout until your voices run out).”
Second event was the press conference, which seemed a superfluous exercise because he had just used two hours for his speech. It was classic Duterte, serving up more and more of his frustration about the Left and finally to everyone’s shock, announcing he would bomb the Lumad schools – in response to the Left’s influence over some of these communities.
On July 24, Rappler posted live updates of the SONA which include quick fact-checks and context reports. Key points in Duterte’s speech, accompanied by brief explanations for context, can be found in a webpage dedicated to Rappler’s SONA coverage. Among the topics fact-checked include the president’s claim that CPP founder Sison has colon cancer, and that Rappler is American-owned.
Vera Files also ran a series of fact-check reports beginning July 26. The articles provided the specific quotes and time stamp for a quick review of when in the SONA the president made the pronouncement. The topics include government procurement procedures, martial law, Davao City’s economic growth, the peace process with the Left, and his claims about his encounters with then US President Barack Obama and his successor Donald Trump.
Fortunately, some news organizations attempted to focus coverage on issues on their own through special programs. Some began their assessment of the president’s performance before July 24. Coverage of the issues in the first year of his term did not wait for the president’s self-assessment but relied on other sources for extensive review. The media’s interest in personalities, costume, color and trivia was also less evident in the coverage, compared to the reporting of this event in previous years.
In the week leading to the SONA, 24 Oras and GMA News TV’s State of the Nation with Jessica Soho aired reports that looked into hot button issues such as employment and wages; fighting crime and the rule of law; peace; environment; taxes; corruption; and updates on pet legislations by Duterte. TV Patrol looked into the performance of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the Duterte administration’s first year; the promises he made; and what to expect in the president’s legislative agenda and the SONA.
Other SONA-related reports can be found in dedicated websites put up by GMA News Online (“SONA 2017”) and ABS-CBN News Online (“Pangakong Pagbabago: State of the Nation Address 2017”). The website also contained photos, videos, social media streams and live blogs of the event.
Some invited resource persons to provide insights on Duterte’s second SONA. ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) opted for a town hall format while GMA News TV and CNN Philippines conducted a panel discussion. The guests include analysts, academics, experts, former government officials, military personnel and members of the public. Resource persons of CNN Philippines which included Ateneo School of Governance Dean Ronald Mendoza, former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez, Stratbase Group Managing Director Dindo Manhit, sociologist Nicole Curato and CMFR chairman of the board Vergel Santos gave sharp insights on issues such as economy, the war on drugs, peace and order, foreign relations and public perception. The guests also noted the missteps and shortcomings of not only the president but also that of other concerned government officials on the said topics.
The media’s coverage of this year’s SONA was more streamlined with its efforts focused on relevant topics, unlike past coverage which gave more time and space to the trivial, the color and the costume.