This Week in Media (April 25 to 29, 2022)

Pre-election hitches, COVID concerns surface two weeks before polls

WITH LESS than a week to go for the campaign, the candidates for various offices are likely to do what they can to get voters on their side, or as current politics seem to suggest, to get voters for some other candidate than themselves. 

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) has to do a whole lot more to keep what little voter confidence they are left with at this point. There are few elections in recent memory as afflicted with so much distrust of the agency mandated to oversee credible elections. Most of the commissioners have barely warmed their seats. Little wonder that so much controversy has cast a shadow on the prospects for free and fair elections on May 9. 

But the media have been restrained in reporting problems besetting the Comelec’s dysfunctional performance. The list of controversies is long and warrants questions about the independence and integrity of the Commission. Media have reported these, albeit inadequately. 

There is also ample reason to question the Comelec’s efficiency and effectiveness. 

Its announcement on April 25 canceling the last leg of the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates is a prime example as it came after postponements. These events which involved so many principals have to be so closely coordinated to ensure a robust and productive exercise not just for the candidates but also for the voters. 

The current commissioners all seem a bit clueless about the challenge that faces them. Newly appointed commissioners had already been involved earlier in disagreements about the implementation of the gun ban and this debate fiasco has exposed further the lack of coordination within the agency.     

The Comelec held a press briefing on April 22 to announce the postponement of the debates which were scheduled for April 23 and 24.  

The Comelec used to work with a news organization to hold these debates and the venue and communication facilities were provided by the media group. But this year, it had signed on Impact Hub Manila, a start-up company, as its “production partner.” Media did not ask about nor discuss the terms of reference for Comelec’s agreement with the company.

Based on a press briefing, media reported that Impact Hub Manila did not have the resources to support the event and had already fallen behind its payments for the venue. Because there were no budgetary provisions to undertake these costs, the Commissioners all said that they could not approve the release of such funds on behalf of Impact Hub. While the Inquirer referred to the claim that the law barred such expenditures, the report did not explain the basis for this prohibition. 

Media cited an internal memorandum by Commissioner Rey Bulay who flagged possible irregularities in the Comelec’s partnership with Impact Hub. The state of disorder publicized the lack of internal communication among the commissioners and between the Commissioners and other Comelec officials. James Jimenez and Frances Arabe, both directors of the Comelec’s Education and Information Department, had commissioned the company for the debates, and the request for the release of a PHP15 million budget for them was signed by Comelec Chair Saidamen Pangarungan and Commissioner Socorro Inting. 

Media had reported previous disagreements among Commissioners on some policies, but coverage has not established the inconsistencies and the failure of implementation as a pattern suggesting the level of the Comelec’s incapacity and lack of readiness for the elections. 

The debate fiasco is just one reason for citizens to worry about Its capacity to hold credible elections, and the commissioners’ capability to provide well-informed and coordinated answers to concerns that may arise. 

Last weekend, the Inquirer, the Manila Times, GMA News Online and reported concerns about the holding of the automated ballot. Based on forums and individual interviews, the four news organizations cited the issues discussed by representatives of the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) and the Center for People Empowerment and Governance (CENPEG), and former Information and Communications secretary Eliseo Rio, Jr., including the printing of ballots without witnesses, the lack of digital signatures of teachers serving as inspectors, and a limited source code review. 

Unfortunately, the media did not follow up on the issues they raised. The Comelec has remained mum and media have not pushed enough to determine for themselves whether anything was actually being done to address these concerns. 

Problematic precinct finder 

Media also reported complaints from the voters about the recently-launched online precinct finder, because these did not show their records or showed deactivated records. The Comelec advised voters to visit the local Comelec office to settle records and voter status, if they are certain that they did not miss two consecutive elections. 

In October 2021, Rappler cited the Comelec’s target of a January 2022 launch of the online precinct finder. Its late launch on April 25 and the resulting confusion about voters’ data raise all kinds of problems now bedeviling many voters. Again, media reported the delay but did not cite this as part of the pattern in the questionable conduct so far of Comelec. 

The list of failed implementations and the non-observance of legal requirements are enough to question the Comelec’s capacity to see the elections through. It even lacks the grace to accept criticism. Commissioners Bulay and Inting singled out the statement of AIM Alumni for Leni Robredo as one sowing distrust of the commission’s integrity. Bulay even threatened to have those accusing the Comelec of bias rounded up and jailed. He later complained that the media could face libel charges for erroneously reporting that he issued a “threat.” 

The Inquirer‘s April 26 editorial correctly said, “While the 1987 Constitution entrusts the Comelec with the task of “ensuring free, orderly, honest, peaceful and credible elections,” the mandate is not magically self-fulfilling. The Comelec must consistently and assiduously prove itself worthy of this sacred duty.” This kind of factual observation of “failure of duty” is not a matter of opinion but can be supported by facts, collected and detailed assiduously, presented and interpreted with credibility.  

Such efforts have been mostly absent in the coverage of the Comelec’s performance. These accounts were limited to reporting each snafu without pointing out the emergent pattern of inefficiency, to say the least. 

COVID concerns

The Health department confirmed on April 27 the detection of the first case of the Omicron variant’s sublineage BA 2.12 in the country. The patient was a Finnish national who traveled to the Philippines last April 2 for seminars. The DOH said she was fully vaccinated and asymptomatic when she landed, so she was not required to undergo routine isolation. Forty-four of her close contacts have been identified, and some of them have already tested negative. She finished her isolation and went back to her home country on April 21.

The DOH clarified that the Omicron sublineage is more infectious but so far has not proven to be more severe. Media cited officials who urged the public to avail of their booster shots if they haven’t yet, especially since booster figures are still low. For immunocompromised individuals, the second round of booster shots was rolled out this week.

Media also reported that the COVAX Facility will replace 3.6 million expired doses free of charge. But the question remains as to how government officials plan to expedite vaccination to avoid such waste. 

Meanwhile, the DOH and the Comelec are in apparent disagreement over COVID protocols for the elections. Health spokesperson Rosario Vergeire said in a briefing that those with symptoms should avoid going out to vote, but Commissioner George Garcia said the Comelec will administer temperature checks and provide isolation precincts as needed.

The pandemic conditions under which elections will be held demand that journalists be more vigilant in looking for irregularities on May 9.

Other developments 

News broke on Thursday, April 28 that Kerwin Espinosa, a high-profile drug personality, had recanted his accusations that incarcerated Senator Leila de Lima was involved in the Bilibid drug trade. In a sworn affidavit, Espinosa said he was only coerced by the police to implicate De Lima, and that he had no choice but to invent stories in the Senate hearings since his father, Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa, was killed while detained in a cell in November 5, 2016.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on April 26 junked with finality all motions for reconsideration on the Anti-Terrorism Act, effectively upholding the constitutionality of the law. The law when passed was contested with 37 separate petitions by expert groups, including lawyers, human rights advocates and the media. The High Court has thus sanctified the dubious law as part of Duterte’s legacy.