This Week in Media (August 30 to September 3, 2021)

Media not saying that COA is doing the right thing with reports that make officials accountable

THE REVELATIONS by the Commission on Audit (COA) of huge anomalies in the use of pandemic funds should not be regarded as allegations. The commission’s findings were based on the standard rules and principles of accounting required to check how government agencies spend public funds. COA flagged significant deficiencies in the accounting procedures and financial reporting of the Department of Health (DOH) that COA said had been discussed with relevant DOH officials. In light of the fact that how funds for containing the pandemic are spent can be a matter of life or death for the citizenry, the deficiencies have to be explained. 

So far, the Health Secretary has responded only with an emotional tirade against  the damage the COA reports have caused him and his department. It is an ongoing story that the media need to follow closely, but journalists are mistaken when they treat the issue simply as an exchange of partisan claims between COA, some senators, Duque and Palace officials including the president. Based on the established facts,  media should inform the public if DOH has sufficiently explained the deficiencies cited in the COA reports.

The recent Senate hearings made it clear that there was overpricing in the purchase of face masks, face shields and PPEs used in the early days of the pandemic. The investigation also established that government dealt with companies with questionable track records and shady executives but which nevertheless bagged multibillion-peso contracts.  

The discovery of anomalies in the spending of pandemic funds and the Senate’s exercise of its power to check the performance of the executive are not partisan moves. They are required by law and by the rules of governance made more urgent as the country flounders in its fight against COVID-19.

Media have been following this issue for some weeks now. Some newspapers have given the hearings in the Senate banner treatment on their front pages. The TV news programs have followed the developing story.  Online news sites have delved deeper into the discussion. And the heat in social media indicates a significant surge in public anger that caused the Duterte regime’s troll armies to pause. 

President Duterte, who had promised not to tolerate “even a whiff” of corruption, does not seem to believe his officials have done wrong. On the contrary. Without providing the reason behind his claim that COA’s auditing of the DOH funds was “deficient,” he spent his weekly public sessions castigating the COA, scolding senators with insults about their looks in a reprise of his  usual rants when confronted with damaging information. He also went all out to defend the businessmen who were involved in questionable transactions without yielding to the demands for an explanation. 

His mouthpiece Harry Roque added to the mix by diverting attention from the Palace, recalling that the former administration had procured PPEs that were more expensive than those purchased by the DOH for the pandemic. Roque did not attempt to prove whether the scale and quality of purchases are comparable or not. 

Some reports followed up with the necessary information. Citing former Health Secretary Janette Garin, the Inquirer reported that the quantity and quality of the PNoy-era PPEs and those of the current administration’s are not the same. Picking up on the purchase order that was posted online by Abigail Valte, spokesperson of former president Noynoy Aquino, TV Patrol interviewed Katherine Tolome-Gancayco of supplier Rebmann Inc. She explained that the specifications of the PPEs required a higher quality, and that they went through the usual bidding process. Meanwhile, several online reports carried the COA’s statement that it did not find anything questionable in the purchase of the PPEs during Aquino’s time.

The exchange between the Palace and the senators involved in the probes produced quotable quotes and soundbites that most news accounts patched together. Much of the coverage was driven by the back-and-forth of statements: Senators would point out anomalies, Duterte would deny any wrongdoing, trade insults with the senators, and senators would answer back. Some broadsheets even led with headlines like “Rody rants vs Gordon, Ping, Imee” (The Philippine Star) and “Duterte airs threat, mocks Gordon’s girth, Lacson’s hair” (Philippine Daily Inquirer). 

Most news accounts observed caution in reporting the back and forth, favoring what made sense with more space, but with hardly any explanation on whether the response of government was sufficient to clear DOH of any wrongdoing.

Opinion pieces and public affairs programs discussed important points. Former SC Justice Carpio said in his Inquirer column that the Procurement Service-Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) office — the office that received funds from DOH to procure the overpriced supplies– is administratively controlled by the president, and that former Budget Secretary Wendell Avisado’s statement that PS-DBM operates independently from DBM effectively “threw Duterte under the bus.”

Former senator Sergio Osmeña III told Christian Esguerra in ANC’s After the Fact that Duterte “got caught with his pants down… Nagkakandarapa sila ngayon kasi huling-huli na.” Osmeña said Duterte was out of line, as the COA and Senate are just asking questions at this point and no case has even been filed yet. 

Antonio Lavina III, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, said in his Rappler opinion piece: “Acting entitled and attacking COA and other accountability institutions are badges of guilt that we must also be vigilant about. Duterte promising to audit the COA as vice-president is both laughable and a badge of guilt.” The observation emphasized  that the audit process is required as a basic and fundamental tool of good governance. 

With elections scheduled less than a year ahead, the exchange between Duterte and his officials and the likes of those who have declared their intention to run for national office could lead the media audience into looking at  it as a purely partisan matter. 

UP Political Science Professor Jean Franco, who was interviewed on CNN’s News Night, pointed out: Both sides involved in the argument could use this developing corruption story for “mileage,” given the upcoming elections. Indeed, presidential hopeful Senator Manny Pacquiao told ANC’s Headstart that he felt “vindicated” with the ongoing corruption probe.

But beyond the political battle of contenders, there are facts to establish. And media coverage should emphasize those facts: the legitimacy of COA’s process; the need to address and correct the deficiencies, if these are mere technical failures; and the obligation to call parties to account for the deficiencies and clear themselves of suspicion of wrongdoing. Most important, media should do its own investigation to find evidence either way. Enough said, please. 

Battle on the COVID front

On another troubling front, journalists followed  the travails of the healthcare workers who have not yet been paid their benefits, and reported their calls for Duque to resign. 

The House deliberations on the proposed 2022 DOH budget also made news this week, as media picked up on the lack of allocations for hazard pays and benefits for healthcare workers, vaccines and additional testing facilities. Duque explained that the stabilizing vaccine supply might mean that anti-COVID strategies like testing should be reconsidered. 

Most alarmingly, the Philippines already breached the 2-million case count on September 1, and the WHO already confirmed Delta as the most dominant variant in the country. Even the DOH admitted that infections would only continue to rise, but media did not ask what interventions are still insufficient at this point, and how the government plans to address the crisis. The media could not  seem to wean itself away from the meaningless tally of cases without analysis and interpretation, as the IATF talked about extending the lockdown.

Given all the announcements of vaccine deliveries for the rest of 2021, no news account has reviewed the efficiency of the vaccine program and the fairness of the doses’ distribution to achieve the  herd immunity that can contain the COVID-19 contagion.