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Crackdown on corruption? Few reports question Duterte's "mega task force" | CMFR

Crackdown on corruption? Few reports question Duterte’s “mega task force”

Screengrab from Rappler.

ADMITTING THAT corruption persists under his term, President Rodrigo Duterte on October 27 instructed the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of corruption “in the entire government.” Speaking in a taped address, Duterte said the directive remains in effect until the last day of his term.

Apparently, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra was not informed beforehand that the president would make such an announcement. Currently heading the inter-agency task force that investigated the PhilHealth scam, Guevarra now has to comply with Duterte’s order to look into anomalies and wrongdoing across the government bureaucracy, assuming it’s not just propaganda.

Much of the coverage tracked the DOJ as it went through the motions of formally creating a task force and identifying the priority agencies to be investigated.

Only a few reports questioned the wisdom of the president’s instruction to create a “mega task force,” as Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque described it. Much of the coverage failed to provide the larger context—the track record of the president in dealing with corruption, which includes the reassignment of officials who were under investigation.

CMFR monitored the coverage of three Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), four primetime newscasts (TV5’s Frontline Pilipinas, ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and CNN Philippines’ News Night), the online counterparts of these broadsheets and channels, and independent online news sites from October 27 to November 4.

Clearly, the mega task force is Duterte’s attempt to make credible a campaign promise that has proven empty. Roque said in his October 27 briefing that Duterte wanted to leave a legacy of cleaning the government within his remaining time in office.

As usual, journalists seemed willing enough to quote government sources who all predictably welcomed this move, reporting on the matter as though obliged to create a chorus of approval. 24 Oras, News Night, the Bulletin and The Star relied on statements of support from the Palace, the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC), and some legislators in the Senate and the House.

But coverage missed pointing out that there are anti-corruption bodies already in existence, and that Duterte had created the PACC. News accounts did not refer to the role of the Ombudsman which investigates and prosecutes public officials for graft and corruption.

Reports also carried clarifications from the DOJ, Malacanang and Ombudsman Samuel Martires himself that the mega task force would not conflict or overlap with the Ombudsman’s mandate to probe corruption. Media quoted Martires’ statement that as a constitutional body, his office would still conduct parallel investigations. Roque said the lack of manpower in the Office of the Ombudsman would be addressed by the mega task force.

Some reports observed more sharply the inconsistencies in Duterte’s stance on corruption.

TV Patrol, Frontline Pilipinas, the Inquirer, CNNPhilippines.com and Philstar.com mentioned the fact that when Duterte made the announcement, he also cleared in the same address Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar, although DPWH was prioritized for fresh investigation and Duque had been embroiled in the PhilHealth scandal.

CMFR cheers the few reports which went further to discuss how Duterte himself contributes to the perpetuation of corruption in government.

TV5’s explainer reported that Duterte’s “recycling” and “reassignment” of officials with corruption allegations caused in part the lowering of the country’s ranking in Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perception Index — from 99th in 2018 to 113th.

OneNews.ph recalled that Duterte has been the only president without a complete public record of his Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs). The report added that Duterte called out the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism when it reported on the growth of his family’s wealth.

Rappler’s in-depth report included even more context. It cited four of the biggest corruption controversies during Duterte’s term that blew up without  prior investigation (including the PhilHealth scam and shabu smuggling) and the pattern of his response: he would react in a dramatic way, assign his allies to investigate but without pursuing full accountability, as most of them are still not facing any charges.

Duterte’s penchant for task forces questions the value of current anti-corruption mechanisms, short of disregarding them outright. Moreover, the new mega task force seems to be an afterthought for the president; why create it just now when Duterte’s term is ending?

Alas, most reporters were simply blind to these critical aspects that reveal the context of this current development.

The test of any task force must focus on implementation. It would be correct for the media to point out to the public that so far, the administration’s dismal record should hold back praise for this much heralded move. Media should watch this closely and let the public know whether this newly-formed mega task force will go anywhere.