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The Landscape of Information | CMFR

The Landscape of Information

In the time of COVID-19: Briefings, briefings and more briefings


ON ANY given day, the Filipino public can expect to watch at least four televised briefings providing updates on the COVID-19 situation as well as the actions undertaken by different government agencies. But because they’re not a coordinated communication effort, the information clutter fails to clarify the state of affairs. Sadly people are left perplexed, with little to assure them that top officials know what they are doing to stem the spread of the disease or even accomplish the distribution of pledged support for the needy.

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, then spokesperson of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID),held briefings from his house between 9 and 10 am. At 11 am, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar holds the Laging Handa public briefing with Undersecretary Rocky Ignacio, also from their respective homes. The program also interviews officials from different government agencies, including those who are not in the front-lines. It counters anti-Duterte sentiment on social media as well, according to a Philippine Star report.

The Department of Health (DOH) provides daily updates at 4 pm from the agency’s office in Manila, usually delivered by Assistant Secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire. Secretary Carlito Galvez, Jr., chief implementor of the national policy on COVID-19, holds a “day-end” presser from Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City at around 7 pm. He is sometimes replaced by the spokesperson of the National Task Force (NTF) against COVID-19, Retired General Restituto Padilla Jr. The NTF “operationalizes” policies crafted by the IATF.

On top of these regular briefings, President Duterte himself has embarked on late night shows, which in the past were aired live, meaning he often set aside prepared speeches and shifted to his usual rambling style, and often drifts off to contradict what he had just said. The Palace has since moved away from these live presentations, pre-taping the president and editing the footage to remove the ramble. At first, the Palace called these press conferences, even though the media were not invited. Two recent ones, aired in the late hours of April 8 and April 13, showed Duterte with members of the IATF who took turns presenting their proposed policies. The third to have a similar set-up and discuss quarantine extensions was supposed to be aired in the evening of April 23, but was broadcast the following morning instead.

This stream of information, the multiplicity of voices, the diverging positions and the contradictory statements have added to the burdens of the lockdown to the public. The multiple briefings have not helped citizens understand what the government is really trying to do. Unfortunately, some in the media have also failed to make sense of what is being said.

Evening TV news programs end up reporting at length only a few points raised by any of the voices. Only Vergeire’s updates on confirmed cases, deaths and recoveries receive consistent attention.

Ironically, appointed as chief implementer of the government’s National Action Plan, Galvez gets least attention. It is after all the task force he heads that coordinates all the different streams of action of government. What he has to say should reflect what has been worked out among the different officials and their departments. But his briefings are held too late to be included in the TV news programs, or to be given prominent space in print. What he has to say is usually picked up online.

Meanwhile, the president’s messages are mostly dissected in social media, which begins while he is still on the air. Reporters often have to clarify or get other sources to explain what the president said or meant. Galvez shares the same burden of having to explain what he said, should any of the other speakers say anything that differs from or contradicts what he says. The confusion over whether mass testing had begun or whether it would be rolled out at a certain date was embarrassing for someone who was supposed to head the government’s implementation of its COVID-19 action plan.

Duterte’s problematic statements during his late night briefings have included the order to shoot quarantine violators, the naming of both Galvez and Social Welfare Secretary Rolando Bautista in charge of relief distribution, and his being “inclined” to extend the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).

With Nograles holding the earliest briefing the following day, he had to take media’s follow-up questions: Is Duterte’s arrest and shoot-to-kill order against ECQ violators a prelude to martial law? How are local governments supposed to go about their relief distribution? Does the president’s “inclination” mean he has enough basis to make up his mind on the lockdown?

The subsequent designation of presidential spokesperson Harry Roque as the central spokesperson for COVID-19 efforts on April 23 removed the voice of Nograles. It helps somewhat that there is now only one designated voice. But the subtraction of one hardly cuts down the clutter of information or prevents contradictory official statements. Vergeire remains the authorized spokesperson on public health issues. Andanar proceeds with his daily public briefings. As of April 24, Galvez still holds pressers.

One has to wonder whether there is method in the madness. The unleashing of a flood of information without strategy or coordination can only overwhelm the public, leave them in confusion, and weaken the will to question or to criticize. Is this the administration’s overall objective? 

Or is the administration made up of bureaucrats just wanting to have their share of publicity?

It could be worse. It could be that the many voices, the abundance of briefings cover up the sad fact that the government really doesn’t know what it is doing. The media could set itself apart from this sad situation and be able to provide the crucial information that they need. But few are inclined to complain and may not mind being part of the muddle.

Jovic Yee, the health beat reporter of the Philippine Daily Inquirer has shared his frustration about questions sent to the DOH which have gone unanswered. He has also described the department’s briefings that do not give journalists time for follow-up questions. Following every briefing is an arduous and often useless exercise. Journalists do report what this or that official said. But having done so, they should also be ready to call out the futility of the exercise. Maybe the official talking heads will listen and do a better job. The number of virtual pressers does not mean that government is communicating with the purpose of serving the public’s need.