Mining Crackdown: Digging for Context in a Minefield of Issues
IT WAS not exactly a loving message on February 14; at least, not for the mining industry, especially the workers threatened with the loss of livelihood.
When Secretary Regina “Gina” Lopez of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) ordered the sudden closure of 23 mines and the suspension of 75 mining contracts, shock waves ran through various government offices, not excluding Malacañang. Anti-mining advocates welcomed the move as proof of the Duterte administration’s political will to go after an industry regarded as a villain in the field of environmental protection.
A policy divide usually forces the media to take sides. The issue of mining requires a multi-sectoral perspective joined by certain shared objectives. When policy makers fail to find common ground, the media should make the best effort to present the pros and cons on the issue in a manner that helps the public understand its complexity, and appreciate the trade-offs that policy must address.
This is a difficult task which most reporters shun outright, satisfied with the recording of statements by one side against the other in cycles of claims and counter-claims. But the mining controversy is too significant to leave to this kind of coverage.
CMFR reviewed the top broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), primetime TV newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA 7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon, CNN Philippines’ Network News) and some cable newscasts (ANC’s The World Tonight and GMA News TV’s State of the Nation with Jessica Soho) from February 2 to 16 to assess mainstream media’s coverage on the matter.
Lopez has been a staunch environmentalist who spoke fiercely against the mining industry, particularly irresponsible ones. Her appointment as DENR secretary by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 should have signalled the need for the media to prepare for the challenge of covering mining as a national concern. The horrendous damage that bad mining practices caused in the past continues to hound both government and public. The economic impact of the industry is such as to weigh significantly on government policy. In July, Lopez announced a nationwide audit of mining operations. Seven months later, the tension has erupted into a full blown policy conflict, one that should engage the public; as it is too important to leave only to government officials and politicians.
Unfortunately, much of the reporting dwelt only on the exchange of statements between the DENR and the association of mining firms in the country, the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP). The press reported the squabble, with opposing camps trading barbs: COMP scored the lack of due process; Lopez insisted due process was observed, with DENR issuing show-cause orders after the conduct of the audit; Mining firms claimed that they never received the audit report.
On the economic perspective, the reporting cited the over PHP66.6 billion in revenues that the industry gains for the country along with the creation of thousands of jobs. Lopez countered that mining only contributes 0.6 % to the national Gross Domestic Product. The involvement of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III led some of the reports to another exchange about whether he had interests in a mining company.
Media attention was focused on these rows; but there was no attempt to investigate and verify the truth of the claims being made.
Digging for Context
While some reports referred to the Mining Act of 1995 (RA 9742), there was little effort to make the law relevant to the exchange. RA 9742 governs mining operations in the country. Signed under the administration of Fidel Ramos, it liberalized the mining industry, allowing foreign investments and agreements on shared mineral production. It also laid down measures to protect the environment, identifying areas where mining can and cannot be allowed. The evolution of policy regulation has been significant over the years. Media should have developed a level of expertise to be able to provide context to the current controversy.
Media could have also provided a background on the rationale for the responsibilities of DENR, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau and the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC), an advisory council tasked to do a multi-stakeholder review — their different functions as well as their coordinated accountabilities.
The MICC has formed a technical working group to review the DENR audit. The news story should not end with a simple win for one or another party. There is too much at stake which calls policy makers to establish common ground.
Given the heat of controversy, news reporting must acquire sufficient depth to help identify feasible solutions that balance the conflicting needs in society.