This Week in Media (September 27 to October 1)

Election season in full swing as COVID and corruption issues persist

POLITICS GAINED more news space and airtime during the week despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s continuing threat to Filipinos all over the country. But the two are intertwined, since COVID-19 will require adjustments in the conduct of the campaign and the elections. Filipino voters also need to evaluate the capacity of political aspirants at all levels to address the pandemic challenge and the issues of national recovery. 

At present, media cannot afford to let go of close and careful scrutiny of hospital systems, mass testing, quarantines and other protective and preventive measures. The press must continue to examine how the government at all levels continues to perform on this front. News organizations based in Metro Manila must report not just the situation in the capital but also that around the country.

This week, however, coverage may have yielded to the lure of the election season in preparation for the filing of candidacies in the first week of October by picking up statements and soundbites from declared candidates and organized supporters.   

With the virus still active and raging, the hearings in the two chambers of Congress were at odds with one another as they investigate corruption issues related to the huge contracts awarded to Pharmally Pharmaceuticals, a new company with no track record or financial capacity. As Duterte’s allies in the House of Representatives (HOR) continued to downplay the losses suffered by the government, the action in the Senate peaked this week when a whistleblower testified about warehouse employees’ being instructed to change the dates of manufacture of such Pharmally-provided products as face shields. 

Indeed, the week has proven how the pandemic is not just about the danger to the life, livelihood and  health of the citizenry. It has demonstrated again what Filipinos have long lamented: that the leaders they elect and people the latter appoint to public office use and abuse the power they hold, mostly for their personal gain, and always at the cost of the public good.

This crisis demands that journalists pause and review their role as news providers. The conventions of news practice pander to those already prominent and in power– families, nay dynasties, who have been in politics for so long that they have become household names. Reporting on the already well-known should have as its objective enabling voters to scrutinize their records of performance, and to evaluate their qualifications and service records. News must help citizens make informed choices and not just to enable them pick someone with a famous family name. 


Elections

Reports have been showing long lines in all Comelec stations for registration. They have documented complaints about the length of time would-be voters spent waiting, as well as the frustrations of those who in the end still failed to register due to cut-off times. 

Initially averse to the extension of voter registration because it would supposedly disrupt the set schedule for the election process, the Comelec en banc approved the extension of voter registration from October 11 to 30, past the original deadline of September 30. No registration is allowed from October 1 to 8, the dates for the filing of COCs.

This week, media reported on 1Sambayan’s nomination of Vice President Leni Robredo as presidential candidate. Robredo has yet to announce her response. Meanwhile, Leody de Guzman, a former senatorial candidate, accepted the nomination for president of the Partido Lakas ng Masa, a socialist political party established in 2009. 

Pulse Asia released preferential survey results indicating Sara Duterte and Vicente Sotto III as top choices for president and vice president, respectively. 


COVID-19

Pandemic coverage was limited to reports on the number of new cases. In fact, the case count has already reached 2.5 million, but the surge in the spread of the infection does not seem to be an issue for either government or the media. 

On September 29, a  Bloomberg report on COVID-19 resilience called the Philippines the “worst place to be” during the pandemic, ranking the country 53rd out of 53 “major economies” surveyed. Reference to the report in local media highlighted how other Southeast Asian countries also dropped from their previous ranking, while European countries continued to top the list. Among the datapoints considered were vaccine coverage, mortality rate, strictness of lockdowns, resumption of air travel and virus containment.

Media picked up government reactions. Usec. Maria Rosario Vergeire, DOH spokesperson, said that the Bloomberg study “gives them more direction.” She also noted that the vaccination rate has actually improved. From the Palace, Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesperson, downplayed the report by quickly repeating the allegation that richer countries are hoarding the vaccines for themselves.

The president  approved the rollout of vaccines for the general population starting October. Reports unfortunately did not ascertain the sufficiency of vaccine supplies as Roque had given the impression that the country was having trouble securing its vaccine supply. And government has not actually communicated how this general vaccination call will be implemented. 


Pharmally probes

The Senate has conducted 10 hearings as of September 30. The probe led with the mishandling of pandemic funds by DOH which COA flagged, focusing its questions on the multibillion-peso contracts bagged by Pharmally and facilitated by the DBM’s Procurement Service which bought the supplies for DOH. Each hearing triggered more controversies. The latest was caused by the damning admission last September 24 of Krizle Grace Mago, an executive of Pharmally, who said she was instructed to tell warehouse staff to tamper with the production dates of the face shields they supplied — these dates indicate the time frame for the shields’ durability and effectivity. The reported act was clear proof of fraudulent business conduct: providing government health supplies of questionable quality.

Since then, senators have failed to contact the whistleblower, as she did not appear in the hearing on September 30. But in the evening of October 1, news broke that she was already under the protective custody of the House, as announced by Rep. Michael Aglipay, chair of the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability.

Amid Mago’s revelations, Duterte continued to criticize the Senate for holding “martial law-like” investigations, while praising the House probes for being “sane” and “fair,” as the chamber scrambled to his defense. Aglipay quipped that nobody has died from expired face shields. 

There were efforts from the media to keep things in perspective. news.ABS-CBN.com listed the anomalies that have been uncovered in the Senate probes, stressing the findings that effectively countered Aglipay’s  lawyering for Pharmally.. Inquirer’s October 1 editorial also recalled how the Palace has reacted so far, pointing out the contrast between the Senate and House probes. It appropriately said, “The Duterte administration will champion the well-being of Pharmally over that of the country’s citizens.”


Underreported, developing issues

With politics taking up much of news coverage, CMFR cheered media reports on issues that have received little attention: the Inquirer for its series on the vulnerability of Metro Manila to rising sea levels, and  alternative, community and mainstream media that reported critically on the pull-out of allegedly subversive books from the libraries of three state universities and their turnover to the police and military.

Meanwhile, the House late in the night of September 30 approved on final reading the 2022 General Appropriations Bill with PHP5.024 trillion for the national budget. This is not the end, however,  since the Senate can still question allocations and make amendments. The media should keep watch and report the changes, whether good or bad.