This Week in Media (December 13 to 17, 2021)

Two Omicron cases confirmed; Typhoon Odette pummels the country

THE  CONFIRMED cases of Omicron in the country and  the onslaught of Category 5 Super Typhoon Odette in the Visayas cast a shadow on hopes for a merrier Christmas this year.  

On December 15, media reported the Health department’s announcement that it has isolated two individuals who had tested positive for the Omicron variant: a Filipino returning home from Japan,  and a Nigerian national on a direct flight from Oman to Manila.   

Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told the media that both remain in isolation. She added that only one of the two was vaccinated. 

Reports presented the DOH in action, with assurances that the contacts made by the two had been traced and everyone in the flight manifest had tested negative and held for the mandatory five-day quarantine. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III warned in a separate briefing that the health care system may still be overwhelmed due to Omicron’s being more infectious. He added that the unvaccinated are more likely to contract the variant. As of press time, 43 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated, only a little more than half of the  77 million target.

Unfortunately, typhoon “Odette” caused the second round of the “Bayanihan Bakunahan” or national vaccination days to be postponed in the regions of Bicol, Mimaropa, and the entire Visayas and Mindanao. 

In the afternoon of December 16, Odette made its first two landfalls in Siargao, Surigao del Norte and Cagdianao, Dinagat Islands. News coverage picked up on evacuation efforts and provided visuals of the strong winds and torrential rains as some other provinces were placed under Signal No. 4. Reports have so far identified airports and highways that were heavily damaged by the typhoon, as well as the areas that lost power, water and mobile network signals. State weather bureau PAGASA did not see any sign of Odette’s weakening, projecting its exit from the Philippine Area of Responsibility by Saturday, December 18.

Netizens began looking for President Duterte whose absence and silence during disaster episodes has often been noted in the news. Media caught up with the president to ask about the storm as he was unveiling the new MRT-7 trains  in Quezon City. This time, he spoke to assure close monitoring and availability of resources. Reports did not point to the pattern of presidential non-engagement during disasters in the past. 

Tandem withdrawal

Omicron and Odette pushed to the margins of news any follow-up on the maneuvering of candidates from Davao: the official withdrawal of Senator Christopher “Bong” Go from the presidential race on December 14 and Duterte’s own withdrawal from the senatorial race on the same day. Journalists reported Duterte’s move as unannounced, noting that his partymates were also caught off-guard. 

Media quoted his allies who said they respected the decision of Go and Duterte. A few reports recalled Duterte’s history of flip-flopping over his retirement from politics. But in general, coverage did not make much of this tandem withdrawal, treating it as an event of no great significance.

Tokhang for activists?

Baguio-based Northern Dispatch and Rappler reported that activists in Baguio City have been receiving unwanted visits and “calls for dialogues” from the police and military. As these individuals had been red-tagged, they expressed alarm that the strategy may be targeting them the way “Tokhang” did some communities during the drug war. 

Rappler reported that the Regional Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee passed a resolution empowering the police and military to conduct house visits on “known members of communist front organizations.” This strategy is known locally as “Dumanon Makitongtong” (“visit and talk” in Ilocano). Rappler said the strategy was adopted as policy by the inter-agency Cordillera Regional Peace and Order Council, which is chaired by Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong. Since its adoption in August, activists said the unwanted visits have increased.

Other news organizations have yet to follow up on this story. Often such human rights violations are conducted during holidays when the press engages minimally on the news front. 

On the legislative front

On December 15, the House and the Senate passed the bicameral version of the 2022 General Appropriations Bill. The proposed PHP 5.024 trillion budget will be sent to President Duterte for his signature. 

Most of the reports did not go into the details of the bicameral report to check allocations.  Media should be scrutinizing the budget items to check whether the proposed budget provides sufficiently for the third year of the pandemic. 

Also on December 15, the Senate voted 19-3-0 to approve on third and final reading amendments to the Public Services Act. The amendment clarifies the distinction between “public services” and “public utilities.”  The bill in effect opens public services which are not considered natural monopolies to foreign ownership. Telecommunications, airlines, domestic shipping, railways and subways are considered public services under the amendment. Only Senators Ralph Recto, Risa Hontiveros and Francis Pangilinan voted against the measure. 

Coverage has so far limited the discussion to senators expressing agreement or disagreement. With Congress in recess, news accounts must involve other sources who can better discuss the effect of the legislation on national security and patrimony.