This Week in Media (October 4 to 8, 2021)

Politics, the Pandemic and ‘Communists’ : Government’s response raises level of media criticism

THE FILING of certificates of candidacies has not been really as exciting in recent elections. But it became an event to watch in 2021. People seem more concerned about the options they have to choose from, as they can vote only for those who do decide to run. 

The media however have always given this event their attention, mostly to check out the entourages accompanying the aspirants for office. Imagine then the reporters’ surprise when President Duterte  accompanied Bong Go, his loyal aide and gofer turned senator, to certify the latter’s bid for vice president. 

Apart from the restrictions required by COVID-19, the routine was predictable. 

But 2021 has involved a continuing guessing game as to who will actually run with whom and for what office. Remember that the deadline for substitutions on November 15 provides supposed candidates more than a month to reconsider their decision. 

In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte ran as a last-minute substitute candidate for a party of which he was not a member. The disarray over such a momentous political decision has been shown up as typical of his persona,  his presidency, and the party he now heads. 

Six years later, the Duterte family seems trapped by the desire to keep all their options open until the very last moment, calculating how they can maneuver to protect their chances. Only on the last day did Senator Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa  file his candidacy for president, starting off a round of speculation about the Dutertes’ real plans.  

The lack of real political parties lies at the core of this mindless approach to such a momentous decision. The party system requires a process that in many countries includes primaries and caucuses, even debates, so that the party can unite behind one candidate.  With no real political parties to speak off, Filipinos have become quite tolerant of how their politicians trivialize their own choices for candidates and the electoral process itself.

Political scientist Julio Teehankee decried the lack of genuine political parties and its impact  on Philippine elections. He described the move of some presidential candidates from bigger parties to small, even “moribund” ones as nothing more than an effort to “rebrand” themselves as politicians.  In an interview with ONE News’ The Chiefs, Teehankee recalled that Duterte chose to run as a candidate of the almost inactive PDP-Laban. This could have boosted the image he wanted to project, a politician on his own, operating “outside  the system.” 

But for the supporters of Vice President Leni Robredo, the waiting has ended and their resounding show of support for their choice outshone all other declarations during the week, suffusing the event with exuberance, color and light. 

Candidates vie for media coverage 

Campaigns and media coverage are joined at the hip by news conventions. Reporters should remember that what they do from this point on will have an effect on how people vote. 

With Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s declaration to run for president, CMFR cheered the reminder of how much “hidden and ill-gotten wealth” his father had amassed during Martial Law. And with Robredo’s formal bid to challenge the regime, Vergel Santos pointed out how she alone qualifies as an opposition candidate, recalling all the ways in which everyone else had identified with Duterte, his militarism, killings, misogyny, and all the hallmarks of his catastrophic  rule. 

What about the faithful coverage provided by some media sectors to project presidential candidate Christopher “Bong” Go?  Even before his official declaration, stories on Bong Go were already  getting  into a number of newspapers. CMFR jeered these stories as puff and boost reports, none of which noted Go’s unabashed service as just another gofer of President Duterte even after he became senator in 2019. 

CMFR’s content analysis counted more articles on Go from September 19 to October 1–even before he had confirmed his bid for the vice presidency. He got more  media attention than either Francisco Domagoso or Isko Moreno who declared his presidential candidacy on September 21, or Robredo who was declared  1Sambayan’s choice on September 30. 

Abuses in the name of anti-communism 

As election fever rises, media need to keep their focus on other urgent issues. The administration has not restrained the notorious campaign to red-tag activists and lawyers by the NTF-ELCAC, a campaign that has not been free of the excesses of “Tokhang,” its warrantless raids into homes and its extra-judicial killings. 

CMFR cheered Rappler’s in-depth report which traced the shift of the Duterte propaganda war from its anti-drug user/addict narrative to one painting insurgency as the enemy that must be quelled. 

The still fumbling pandemic response 

CMFR noted in a previous review that COVID-19 coverage has taken a backseat to politics.  Media have not  explored the downward trend in new cases  this week. OCTA Research has also noted lower reproduction rates.

Briefing the media on October 4, Maria Rosario Vergeire, DOH spokesperson, said health officials still had to assess the decline, as hospitals remain congested and testing output has similarly decreased. On October 7, Vergeire confirmed the decline in new cases to the media “after analyzing and identifying all factors,” adding, however, that this should not lead to complacency.

Media did not raise questions about the factors that may have contributed to the turnaround. Journalists simply quoted the spokesperson, without any follow up on the numbers or discussion with other experts. 

Meanwhile, journalists reported a study by Nikkei Asia ranking the Philippines last out of 121 countries in its COVID-19 Recovery Index, only a week after Bloomberg similarly rated the Philippines last in COVID-19 resilience. Media carried reactions from health and Palace officials, all of whom either described Nikkei’s methodology as “skewed”  or pointed to the timing of the study during a peak in cases. 

Pandora papers

Screengrab from PCIJ website.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and Rappler published on October 4 a series of reports on the Pandora Papers, a leaked hoard of documents detailing the offshore accounts of world leaders, business leaders and celebrities. The Pandora Papers initiative is a global effort of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which involved journalists from 117 countries. 

Being the only incumbent Filipino official in the list, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade was given more prominence than other Filipinos in the list. Much of the follow-up coverage simply pointed out his inclusion in the list and his clarification that contrary to the claim of PCIJ and Rappler, he did declare his offshore investments in his SALNs.

TV Patrol and, however, pointed out that Tugade’s SALNs did not indicate his offshore investment as a business interest. Lawyer Kim Henares, former commissioner of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, also told both news organizations  that Tugade’s SALNs might be “lacking” if he did not specify what his “offshore investment” was. also correctly added, “It is not illegal to have assets abroad or to use shell companies, but ICIJ’s report could put government officials who may have campaigned against tax avoidance and corruption in a bad light.”