Covering the May 13 Elections: TV Did the Better Job, But…

CMFR File Photo.

NOTHING QUITE highlights the importance of media coverage as the elections in the Philippines, where fraud, vote-buying and violence have marred the political exercise. During the May 13 mid-term elections, the news media were at best only partly successful in discharging one of its most significant duties as public watchdog.

On May 13, the coverage of the mid-term elections captured the many failings in the conduct of the automated voting system. As Comelec itself admitted, the number of irregularities had increased compared to the 2016 elections. The many cases reported during the day ranged from pens which were not working and complaints about machines registering different results from how voters filled their forms was disturbing as journalists recalled this was already the fourth use of the vote counting machines (VCM). But come the long delay in the transmission of consolidated data after canvassing had begun on precinct level, it was clear that Comelec was not prepared to handle a major technological failure and its fall-out.

Comelec officials seemed eager to brush aside the development, with one daring to say that the Comelec website had all the information. Actually, the information on the website were not collated but were simply posted as results came from different barangays around the country.

The Comelec’s failure also showed media’s lack of preparedness for such a dire development. Media seemed as much at a loss as the resource persons they had available to them. There were hardly any–neither from the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) nor the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), both official poll watchdogs for 2019 — who could adequately explain what was happening, and to clarify with confidence that it was just a technological glitch.

TV anchors at their studios attempted to get Comelec to explain the nature of the computer failure. Some gave the simple explanations an easy pass. As other TV networks brought in political experts for comment and analysis, CNN Philippines stood out for getting the insight of their in-house IT expert who looked into the technical aspect of the reported “glitches”– a much-needed perspective in the midst of the confusion over the delays.

Most of the reports did note the delay and other irregularities in the elections despite Comelec’s efforts to downplay these as mere “glitches.” Only a few pointed out that PPCRV was also clueless despite its primary role to keep up the parallel unofficial count.

Print media could have supplemented with more substance and findings TV’s real-time coverage. Unfortunately, their reports on the following day provided no new information.

CMFR monitored the coverage by both free TV and the cable networks ABS-CBN 2, GMA-7, GMA News TV, CNN Philippines, TV5, and ANC, and the leading broadsheets Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, and Manila Bulletin from May 13 to 14, 2019.

TV’s Turf

As in the 2016 elections, the television networks provided 24-hour news coverage. ABS-CBN 2, CNN Philippines, GMA-7 and TV5 began their Election Day coverage as early as 5:00 a.m. of May 13. Of the four major networks, however, only CNN Philippines, and TV5 provided round-the-clock coverage uninterrupted by its regular programming. Cable-access news network ANC did the same.

Media organizations fielded their reporters at different polling precincts as well as in important election agencies, while TV anchors engaged guests, experts and pundits, in panel discussions on election-related issues, including post-election prospects. 

TV news enlivened the screens in competing for audience share. ABS-CBN 2 and TV5 made use of panoramic widescreens, monitors, graphics and animations while GMA-7 utilized augmented reality technology to project data on screen. CNN Philippines opted for the more traditional setup of talking heads behind a desk.

Technical Difficulties

This is the fourth automated elections in the Philippines. But it was on this fourth exercise that the process seemed more afflicted with irregularities, perhaps even more than the 2016 presidential elections. More than the reported cases of violence and vote-buying, much of the news carried information about technical problems encountered in different voting precincts as the day progressed.

Field reporters and news anchors questioned the Comelec about the reported malfunctioning of VCMs and corrupted SD cards, to which the poll body said a contingency plan had been set in place, including troubleshooting measures and replacement of necessary equipment. But the media did not follow up on whether the response was satisfactory.

An even more serious problem challenged media’s coverage when anchors on duty had to relay information about the delay in the transmission of results, which lasted nearly eight hours.

News accounts noted that the problem began past six in the evening when reporters at the PPCRV headquarters in Manila noticed the lull in the update of election data in the transparency server.

Media tried to clarify the matter by asking PPCRV officials what they knew of the issue, but even these were in the dark. Only at 10:00 p.m did PPCRV and KBP release a statement urging the Comelec to explain the situation. The media sought the explanation of Comelec Spokesperson James Jimenez, who faced reporters by 11:30 p.m. in a press conference which was covered live by all television networks.

Jimenez said the problem had been traced to an application that pushes data from the transparency server to the media outlets. He explained that from the VCMs, the data are simultaneously sent to the canvassers’ servers, the central server and the transparency server, and emphasized that despite the observed lull, all were continuously receiving data. Jimenez pointed out that the Comelec also had to see the error logs to know what caused the problem. He said that he had already requested the Comelec en banc to allow the opening of the logs. 

Political strategist Malou Tiquia, Kontra Daya’s Danilo Arao and Tindig Pilipinas’ Edwin Lacierda, who sat on the CNN Philippines’ panel, and UST Professor Dennis Coronacion who was on TV5, all pointed out that the longer the delay, the more public suspicion grows. They said that the poll body needs to address the concern immediately, as such problems can provide anyone a window of opportunity to tinker with the results of the elections.

An hour after Jimenez faced the media, TV5 interviewed the Comelec spokesperson live from PPCRV. The interview probably did best in presenting the seriousness not just of the delay but also of the failure to explain exactly what was causing it.

Putting the official on the spot, anchors Lourd De Veyra and Meanne Los Banos tried to get to the bottom of the issue. Without the service logs, however, Jimenez could only repeat his earlier explanation.

De Veyra reminded the Comelec of its many failures and asked how it will dispel the cloud of doubt created by these blunders. Jimenez owned up to the mistakes, but nonetheless claimed the success of the automated process.

De Veyra asked if the Comelec’s explanation was acceptable. Coronacion said that it was ironic because the automation of the elections should give the people fast, instant and transparent results. The delay was doing otherwise. The panel also asked if the Comelec tested the system before Election Day.

In News Night the following day, news anchor Pia Hontiveros asked CNN Philippines’ field reporter why the explanation from Comelec was itself delayed. The reporter on the scene said the poll body was still collating data and trying to figure out what happened.

Compared to television, the broadsheets’ superficial coverage did not provide the post-election analysis expected of print. Their reports were mostly on the other “glitches” that occurred and how the race was shaping up according to partial and unofficial tallies. The Inquirer’s editorial “Election blues” was published two days after the election. It questioned how the delay happened, saying that despite the belated explanation from the Comelec, such occurrences should be unacceptable.

Where were the Poll Watchdogs?

Following the lack of an immediate explanation on the reported irregularities, it was inevitable for much of the public to doubt the credibility of the polls. It did not help that independent election watchdog groups were barely visible in the coverage.

Unfortunately, media also failed to highlight the remarkable absence of National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) in the 2019 elections.

On May 3, news organizations reported Namfrel’s withdrawal as the Comelec’s citizen arm after the poll body denied its petition to have direct access to key election data. This includes electronic copies of certificates of canvass that would have allowed Namfrel to independently track and monitor the authenticity of election results.

Having guarded the sanctity of the vote since its inception in the 1950s, Namfrel’s track record as a poll watchdog makes it an invaluable resource on election matters. Its withdrawal as the official citizens’ poll partner for the 2019 midterm elections was unfortunate, but the media should have known better than to further sideline Namfrel in the coverage.

Interviews with Namfrel on Election Day were scant and did not really offer new information. In these few instances, its officials were merely asked about their reasons for withdrawing as the Comelec’s partner.

GMA News TV’s Balitanghali interviewed  Namfrel Chair Augusto Lagman’s by phone but limited the conversation to the poll watchdog group’s views about the Comelec’s decision and why access to said key election data is crucial to their goal of checking poll fraud.

TV 5’s election coverage featured as a guest Eric Alvia, Namfrel secretary general, who shared his views on the reported technical problems and vote-buying cases. Alvia attributed Namfrel’s withdrawal as a citizen’s arm for the May 13 poll to “limited access.” He said that while Comelec allowed them to observe the transmission of data from the VCM’s to the servers, the poll body was mum on their request for access to data including server logs, and observation of other processes. Alvia emphasized that the primary role of a poll watchdog is to validate the results of the election and that they cannot perform their role without access to these data.

Similarly, media also failed to give prominence to the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente), which replaced Namfrel as the Comelec’s citizen arm on Election Day. Earlier in the day, however, lawyer Carlo Africa, head of Lente’s national secretariat, joined CNN Philippines’ panel and discussed issues such as the credibility of surveys and the Senate race. Meanwhile, Balitanghali interviewed Brizza Rosales, Lente’s senior project director, who only provided an initial report on early machine malfunctions and reminded the public to report incidents of vote-buying.

Africa again appeared in CNN Philippines’ The Source the following day together with Namfrel’s Lagman to provide an assessment of the election proper.       

Screengrab from CNN Philippines’ Youtube Account.

Comelec’s numerous procedural lapses during the 2019 election provides a crucial lesson for media on their role as poll watchdogs. Perhaps, media felt that automation had rendered fraud and cheating or even problems of credibility irrelevant, underestimating the political challenge that confronts elections and democracy in the Philippines.

The views of  election watchdog groups such as Namfrel, Lente and Kontra Daya would have helped both media and public to become more aware about the threats that continue to threaten the credibility of elections as these have now emerged in the midterm elections.

Their perspective would have been crucial in how Filipinos can evaluate the events of May 13, 2019, but this was unfortunately missing in much of the media coverage.

Midterm Polls as Referendum?

Mid-term elections are never seen as exciting or as critical as presidential elections. But the political situation in the country suggested more than just the usual periodic electoral event.

Prior to May 13, the Senate was seen as the last bastion of independence that could check executive power, with both the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court under Duterte influence, if not control.

Media almost uniformly chorused that the 2019 polls would be a referendum on President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration and could mark the end of Senate independence. The Inquirer’s May 13 editorial observed that “Crucially, today’s vote also depends on where one stands with regard to President Duterte. It is indeed a midterm referendum on his presidency.”

TV networks invited resource persons who weighed in on the election’s implications on the remaining three years of Duterte’s term.

In ANC’s live coverage, Socorro Reyes from the Center for Legislative Development described the elections as the people’s opportunity to “come up with their evaluation rating for the president,” adding that it’s the people’s way of expressing how satisfied or dissatisfied they are.

GMA-7’s resident political analyst, Richard Heydarian, said as much, arguing that the results of the election would reject or affirm the previous years of the current administration.

Prof. Herman Kraft of the University of the Philippines Department of Political Science said in a CNN Philippines interview that the midterm elections can be seen as some sort of referendum on the administration, but argued that it must be viewed in terms of how institutions are supposed to work. Kraft said that while the president remains popular, the public is questioning some of his policies such as the drug war killings.

As the results of the elections came in, TV5’s panel of political experts discussed the possible stand that each incoming senator would take on Duterte’s flagship policies, such as Federalism. Earlier, TV5’s Ed Lingao did an explainer on the Senate’s possible composition if the Magic 12 recorded by the surveys were actually elected. He divided the Senate into anti, pro-administration and independent or swing vote groups, while pointing out the possibility of changing alliances with the approach of the 2022 elections.

Screengrab from News5Everywhere’s Youtube account.

In general, however, despite the views expressed by their guest commentators, the media did not clarify whether the referendum was on the president himself or on his policies. Previous surveys showed that Filipinos do support Duterte, but not his policies on such matters as the government’s inaction on the West Philippine Sea dispute, the conduct of the “war on drugs” particularly on the issue of extrajudicial killings and the “nanlaban” narrative, and the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

There was very little discussion on these policies on the part of Duterte-endorsed candidates, which then raises a question that the media did not answer: Which policies were the subject of the referendum? Or is the referendum limited only on the popularity of Duterte as a leader, a politician, or as a misogynist, a basher of the Catholic Church, or a profanity-prone public speaker?

On the eve of elections some critics of the administration aired the idea that the election was a referendum on Filipinos as a people and society. What kind of government did we as a people really want for ourselves? What kind of leaders were we seeking as a nation?

On election day, these questions were left sidelined, un-asked.