Media follow government lead in reporting historic economic recession

Photo from National and Economic Development Authority’s (NEDA) Facebook page.

THE GOVERNMENT announced the country’s first recession in three decades on August 6. At a press conference, the administration’s economic managers reported that in the second quarter of 2020, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) plunged by a record 16.5 percent.

In a separate press briefing, Undersecretary Claire Dennis Mapa, Civil Registrar General of the Philippine Statistics Authority, said that the GDP drop was the most massive contraction of the economy since the 1980s. Reports also added that it was likely to be the fastest year-on-year drop since World War II.

There were no regrets in imposing the lockdown, administration officials said. Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua stressed that it is “because the priority was clearly to save lives from COVID-19.”

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said the government has enough resources to withstand the pandemic and its impact on the economy. “The economy is in good shape to mount a strong recovery soon enough,” he said. Dominguez made a similar claim earlier in April, before the announcement of the recession, when he assured the public that the economy was “well-prepared” for COVID-19.

During the press conference, Dominguez stressed that “whatever stimulus package we have, it has to be affordable and it has to recognize the fact that this COVID virus may not be defeated by the end of this year.” “We have to keep our powder dry for next year as well,” he added without much elaboration.

Banner headlines announced the recession in print media on August 7 but most of the reports added little to the quotes from officials. The prominence the news deserved quickly gave way to other news, and the subject was relegated to the business section which addresses a special audience. Despite the relevance of the recession to all Filipinos and its impact on the future of the country, the media made little effort to connect the economic impact to ordinary lives.

Some primetime news programs did connect the recession to the public, spotlighting its impact on the poor; but these reports did not carry much economic analysis. Most online reports, with a few exceptions, banked on statements from authorities, citing economic figures with little interpretation.

In general, media reports carried the administration’s message that the recession was an inevitable fallout from the pandemic. And as finance and trade officials did not say anything concrete about what to expect, there was also little in the news that could help Filipinos assess what the future holds for them.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from August 6 to August 12, 2020.

Instead of focusing on how to address the slump, the economic team used the August 6 press conference to drum up its claimed accomplishments, such as the country’s “good credit rating,” its increased spending through big-ticket infrastructure projects and the social amelioration program (SAP).

The counter-narrative could be found only in bits and pieces spread out on media platforms, in opinion columns, interviews and online-reports. These took exception to the government’s attempt to present its accomplishments and pointed instead to the government’s weak response to the health crisis.

Inquirer columnist and economist Solita Collas-Monsod begged to differ from the government line, pointing out that instead of focusing on rehabilitating the economy, the administration “ignored the signs” and wasted “precious time and attention” on the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 and closing down ABS-CBN. She also described how the government failed to disburse the SAP in a way that could help in a timely manner those most displaced by the pandemic.

Interaksyon cited Dean Ronald U. Mendoza of Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Government who shared the same view. In a tweet, Mendoza said that the shutdown of the broadcast giant with over 11,000 workers across the country and the passage of the divisive Terror Law also contributed to the economic turmoil.

In an interview with One News’ The Chiefs cited by The Star, economist JC Punongbayan talked about how the economy is tied to the pandemic, faulting the government for its delayed response during the initial outbreak in the country. Punongbayan also said that the weak fiscal response, the failure to contain the virus spread and issues on the government’s infrastructure program would make it even more difficult to get out of the slump.

GMA News Online cited the think tank IBON foundation which blamed the government for the “worst economic collapse” in Philippine history. IBON Executive Director Sonny Africa said the government’s “incompetent” response to the pandemic has aggravated its impact. “Our less credit-worthy neighbors in ASEAN acted more rationally, did not rely as much on lockdowns, and are spending more on their people and economies,” Africa said.

Clearly, there are more sources out there who could have contributed to this discussion; experts who could have broadened the public perspective on the recession and what government had to say about it. Every report on the press conference should have consulted these sources. Not doing so failed to provide a more intelligent exchange about something as serious as an economic recession.

Instead the media seemed content to let government officials dominate the public forum, trumpeting their so-called achievements, which so far have not presented any real solutions. As they announced another level of crisis, the administration talking heads were out to convince Filipinos that government has done enough.

The journalistic task was obviously to check the claim and to allow a more honest assessment of the national situation as well as to evaluate what government has actually achieved. But most media shirked the job and let government do its thing.

There is no expertise necessary to review the serial failure of government’s efforts to respond to the threat of COVID-19, its delayed shutdown of international flights from China, its incompetent resort to lockdown without laying out a plan to provide transportation for those who had to work, to assist the needs of those in disease  hotspots, the failure to develop contact tracing along with testing, not to speak of the inept handling of the funding for the poor, the  OFW returnees and the LSIs.

The list is long. On social media, netizens pass around more informed perspectives that show up how government could have done more and better as other countries in the region have done and fared better. Why then are the facts that underlie these views given so little space and time in mainstream media?