EDITORIAL: Crisis in government communication calls for media to step up

COMMUNICATION IS vital to democratic governance in normal times.  But it is even more essential during and in the aftermath of disasters, political, social and economic crises, and such public emergencies as the continuing COVID-19 threat to the health and well-being of the Philippine population. The citizenry needs to know and understand what the government is doing to address the contagion, what its policies are and whether these are on the right track.

Communication has unfortunately never been the Duterte regime’s strong suit. Its focus since 2016 has been on the enhancement of its image and the depiction of its critics in the worst possible light. But incoherence, contradictions and inconsistencies have marred the information flowing from official sources, who despite the number of separate briefings have not served the urgent public need for accurate, reliable and relevant information during the present crisis.

The regime’s communication shortcomings have never been more evident than during this current emergency. Among the most obvious is the absence of information on post-lockdown measures to prevent a second wave of infections, and the lack of discussion of government plans to revive the economy, of assistance to small and medium sized enterprises, including also the need of educational and health institutions to adjust to new requirements.

While there has been a surfeit of government briefings daily, these have not helped as government talking heads give their differing and sometimes opposing views.

In what may be charitably interpreted as an attempt to prevent further confusion, Malacanang has eliminated the voice of Secretary Karlo Nograles as interagency task force (IATF) spokesperson, giving Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque the responsibility of announcing IATF reports and resolutions; while Health Assistant Secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire will continue to speak on public health issues.

But whether that will result in some coherence in government communication remains to be seen. There are other briefings delivered daily by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), the Health department, and the National Task Force on COVID-19. In addition, President Rodrigo Duterte himself has gone on TV to address the nation, supposedly to provide clarity on government policies. Instead he has added to the confusion by departing from his prepared speeches and going into rambling observations, and making contradictory and outrageous statements, including the order to “shoot dead” violators of the ECQ. He also ordered two different officials to head the distribution of assistance to the poor; while such questions about eligibility and other requirements to qualify for such aid during the present crisis remained unclear.

The incidents show only the tip of the miscommunication iceberg. These imply that the government doesn’t really know what it is doing and what it has to do to stop the contagion, care for those afflicted, and oversee the country’s post-lockdown and after-COVID recovery.

Government’s communication crisis presents the media with a profound challenge. Media need to shift quickly from its passive, reactive mode that has journalists waiting for things to happen. They must question the numbers they are being given, ask officials to explain the basis of a policy, and when issuing contradictory orders, ask for confirmation of one or the other.

Unfortunately, with very rare exceptions have the media raised the questions that could compel the government to develop clear-cut, intelligible policies, and to tweak existing ones.

Right before the lockdown, when experts were calling for more testing, Secretary Duque insisted that they could only use the “gold standard” polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, arguing for its safety and accuracy. But he also said that government did not have the resources to get enough of these tests. Media did not ask what exactly he was going to do about it.  Experts had cited the use of rapid antibody tests in other countries for the purpose of imposing focused quarantines.

The control of the disease spread also includes contract tracing and is joined to the mass testing effort.  Media did not inquire to what extent the government was doing this or how it was being done. 

While reporting updates in the accreditation of COVID-19 testing facilities in the country, the media did not ask the progress in addressing the backlog in processing test samples. How sufficient is the current number of testing facilities?

Media do pick up the total number of tests done. But reporters do not ask what the numbers say about the spread of the disease.  Howie Severino, a broadcast journalist who shared experience as a COVID-19 patient posted in his Facebook account that the DOH count does not include deaths of people who were not “confirmed cases” but showed COVID-19 symptoms, as well as the recoveries of people who did not get hospitalized. He added that asymptomatic cases are not tested so it is unknown how many are actual carriers of the virus.  Media should ask: How can we get the real situation with these kinds of gaps in the data?

The efforts of journalist Jovic Yee of the Philippine Daily Inquirer to draw out answers are on point when so much is at stake. In his reports, he asked DOH whether the backlog in mass testing had been resolved, whether the pandemic is abating or worsening, and how severely medical front liners have been affected. He was right to report the government’s inability to answer his questions.

Too many reporters do not mention that fact in their stories. But reporting such failure of government official or agency is a significant part of the story. It helps the public to assess the government’s capacity to respond to the pandemic and prod officials to undertake what is necessary for their protection. 

Unfortunately, many more reporters have resorted to the common practice of quoting what this or that official said, no matter how contradictory or absurd their statements may be.

What the country is facing is a public health crisis during which information can be a matter of life or death.  Because of the incapacity of the government to discharge it, the responsibility of providing the information that can save lives has fallen on the media. Journalists have to probe deeply into official statements and ask the questions that can lead to some clarity on the present situation and what government is doing and plans to do. By pushing the envelope and encouraging citizen engagement, the media can also compel government to evaluate itself, correct its blunders, and arrive at the clear and coherent policies that are needed in these perilous, COVID-challenged times. The health, well-being and lives of millions may very well depend upon it.