April 1 to 15, 2021
Every two weeks, CMFR will provide a quick recap of the media coverage of the biggest stories or issues, noting the same slips that our monitors have been doing. We intend this as a quick mapping of news, providing a guide for journalists and identifying gaps in reporting, the lack of interpretation and analysis as necessary. This section also hopes to engage more public attention and participation in current events, and for them to learn the practice of media monitoring. It is after all the public that serves as the best watchdog of press power.
Media report the cruel season
APRIL may have ushered in the Easter season, which in this country is a time of joy, family reunions and holiday travel. But in 2021, it proved to be the “cruelest month.”
A deadly surge of COVID-19 seized the national capital and locked the area in strict ECQ. In the first weeks of the month, the utter lack of leadership confounded even the minimum expectations for government aid and assistance. As case counts continued to rise, hospitals turned away patients; many had to be taken to provincial hospitals for treatment. But with the entire hospital system in near collapse, government would not admit that its capacity to respond was nearing the “red line.”
At another level, the communities in need of assistance were once again exposed to the lack of order, with so many made to wait long hours just to get aid. Citing LGUs and local residents, media captured ordinary Filipinos’ frustration over the slow roll-out of government subsidies, and the varying amounts of what was received — for some, only PHP 1,000 instead of PHP4,000.
CMFR notes, however, that the coverage this year was less critical compared to last year. Media reported DSWD’s admission that as of April 14, only 8 percent of the PHP1.75 billion fund allotted for aid had been disbursed, without asking for an explanation. The Inquirer’s editorial on April 15 pointed out that the government has not learned from the “chaos, disarray, and irregularities” that marked the distribution of aid last year, calling attention to the sheer disorganization, the fragmented lists and missing names.
Meanwhile, the phalanx of over 200 Chinese ships remained positioned in national waters, threatening to chase off Filipino vessels within their own territory.
President in absentia
In the midst of these multiple crises, the president was neither seen nor heard from, and his scheduled addresses within the period were cancelled. Hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo went viral with rumors about his state of health. Such speculations peaked when Mayor Sara Duterte announced she was flying to Singapore for “personal health management.” Only the photos and videos taken and posted on April 10 by Senator Christopher “Bong” Go could claim that he had been secluded all this time in Malacañang.
Go’s posts showed a masked president playing golf, riding a motorcycle and jogging around the Palace at night. Media published or posted these pictures as “proof-of-life.” Some broadcast reports were quick to point out, however, the lack of proof of when these were actually taken. For even more context, some news accounts also promptly recalled the long list of Duterte’s ailments and carried the public’s clamor for a medical bulletin from the president.
When he spoke on April 12, the president did not address any of the above issues. It was as though he were not aware of them. Instead he talked about his absence, saying he intentionally kept away from the public eye. Unsurprisingly, netizens responded with anger and frustration, picking up on the hashtag #DutertePalpak on social media, and reported as well in the news. From the period of April 4 to April 20, 2021, nearly 27.5k mentions of this hashtag on Twitter were monitored by Mediatoolkit.
Shift to MECQ
CMFR cheered a Rappler report which sounded the alarm on the huge numbers of patients waiting for admission in overcrowded emergency departments, contradicting the government’s claim that it had improved hospital capacity.
It cited the Health Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC) which quickly questioned the IATF’s decision to loosen the quarantine restrictions last April 11. Media cited the group’s statement and pointed out the failure of the authorities to institute necessary reforms in the country’s health system. The group also called attention to problems in the vaccine rollout and the fragmented response to testing, contact tracing and actual treatment.
Cruelty and killing as punishment
Media also promptly reported the police enforcement of ECQ protocols, calling out the brutish treatment of citizens who failed to observe restrictions. CMFR cheered media accounts of the death of citizens in the hands of police and overzealous barangay tanods. Unlike previous coverage, the reports provided the context of human rights, noting these as violations as well as recalling the pattern of abuse reflected by law enforcement officers in previous quarantines.
Plagued by shortage, delays and other issues, the government has hardly made a dent in its announced target of inoculating 70 million people by the end of 2021. The administration of vaccines has been plagued from the beginning by quick unexplained changes in policies. The IATF has changed its mind on the use of AstraZeneca for individuals below 60 and the use of Sinovac for seniors.
Media coverage would have helped the public more to focus on the extent and detail of government’s evaluation of vaccines, even tracking the chain of change from one agency to another. Media should have revisited the flipflops which would show the rationale or the lack of it in government’s decision-making process. Government has only itself to blame for the failure to build greater confidence in the vaccine program. But media also failed to help the public rationalize their response because reports did not check what authorities had to say, or question the validity of their pronouncements.
The same limitation hobbled media coverage of the use of the controversial use of the drug Ivermectin. Caught up in the abundance of sources speaking on this topic, media’s day-to-day coverage failed to make sense of the debate. In his opinion piece “Ivermectin’s counterfactual appeal,” Randy David identified possible reasons for the drug gaining traction in public discussions: the fear of the steep rise in new variants of COVID-19, and the lack of choice in available vaccines that have combined to make people more hopeful of the possible cure promised by the use of this drug.
West PH Sea harassment
CMFR cheered Chiara Zambrano for her report on Chinese presence in the WPS amidst critical comments from some officials and pro-government netizens. But it is in this area that the president’s absence has been most vulnerable to citizens’ disdain, with many plainly giving up on Duterte ever standing up for the rights the country won in the 2016 ruling of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration.
The Chinese challenge confronts Filipinos with fundamental questions of sovereignty. China’s aggression established more permanent structures during Duterte’s term. For the record, media should revive the recollection Duterte’s statements on the issue, including what he uttered supposedly in jest. Otherwise, the media’s own inertia would effectively support a policy that gives up sovereign rights to rogue force.
Throughout his term, Duterte has argued that he could not respond with any military capacity which the country did not have. For the longest time, media has been silent on how other countries like Indonesia and Vietnam have been able to stand up to China’s hostile occupation of their waters. Journalists have hardly criticized the lack of diplomatic initiatives and the disinterest of the administration in this issue. Hopefully, it is not too late for the media to redeem themselves from their own lack of energy in reporting on China. Hopefully, as other officials seem ready to take on a more assertive stance, the media can be more questioning, more critical and less indulgent of the claims that foreign policy must be kept secret from the people the government represents.