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SONA in the time of COVID: Media capture the letdown | CMFR

SONA in the time of COVID: Media capture the letdown

Photo from PCOO.

THE COVID-19 pandemic tempered the usual pomp and circumstance that accompanies the State of the Nation Address (SONA). Government preparations for this year’s SONA required heightened health protocols, such as COVID-19 testing for those attending and who were allowed into the Batasang Pambansa, while others joined via teleconferencing. Coverage inside the venue was limited to government-run media, which compelled news organizations to carry PTV-4’s live footage.

Government did away with the red carpet to welcome arrivals. Doing away with fashion notes, the media did not mention special guests in attendance. In a rare display of punctuality, Duterte arrived via presidential chopper shortly before 4 pm, skipped the ceremonial welcome, and headed straight to the podium and exited the scene as soon as he finished his address.

Because the Palace had touted a “recovery roadmap” as a major feature of the SONA, media awaited more information about future government action to address the pandemic as well as steps to restart the economy.

Media’s post-SONA analysis focused on these concerns, highlighting more misses than hits in Duterte’s address.

CMFR looked at the immediate post-SONA coverage of TV5/One News, CNN Philippines, GMA News TV, GMA-7, ANC, Teleradyo on July 27. CMFR also checked post-SONA forum discussions of Rappler and Altermidya.

Production and presentation

As the media were not there to pick up on points of production, the bare bones of the event did not provoke any kind of commentary on the usual efforts to prettify the scene or the president. No notes were given on his overall demeanor.

Coverage hooked to PTV-4 could not keep track of the number of times the speech provoked applause from the audience, except for one presidential pause as Duterte coaxed the audience into clapping for his suggestion to restore the death penalty.

Back to the studio

The president ended his speech abruptly at 5:45 PM.  Without the spot interviews to fill this usual time segment, broadcast media went back promptly to studio anchors and journalists for the obligatory recap of its highlights as well as the specific points he raised. Among them:

  • His opening with brief remarks about COVID-19,  only to quickly segue to a surprise attack on opposition senator Franklin Drilon, accusing him of defending the “oligarchs,” particularly the Lopezes of ABS-CBN;
  • His reliance on China’s COVID-19 vaccine, claiming he pleaded with Chinese president Xi Jinping to prioritize the Philippines in its distribution
  • His warning to Smart and Globe to improve their services by December or else be expropriated by the government
  • The legislative agenda which includes the second Bayanihan Act and the  return of the death penalty for drug crimes.
  • His admission that he was “inutil” or useless to do anything about China’s de-facto control of the West Philippine Sea, and that he cannot go to war with China
  • His wrapping up the SONA with another attack on Drilon, this time accusing the senator of creating the supposedly onerous agreements between the government and water concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water

To get more reactions and evaluation, the media conducted video conferences with panelists or experts to n political science, health and economics. Discussions included common observations:

  • The lack of a COVID-19 recovery plan as promised. Duterte pushed for the Bayanihan 2 law but did not discuss any detailed economic stimulus package or measures for immediate relief particularly for small businesses.
  • The divisive rhetoric, particularly the comments against Drilon and the threat against Globe and Smart. These comments ended up sidelining the other points in the SONA, especially since Duterte “bookended” the address with his attack on Drilon.
  • Duterte’s defeatist position on China, and the fact that he was grossly misinformed about war being the only option to assert Philippine rights to the West Philippine Sea.
  • The long list of non-COVID-related priority legislation and departments that Duterte wanted to create, noting how these would be hardly wise and realistic goals for his last two years in office.
  • No reference to the anti-terrorism law or Charter Change, recent controversial policies pushed by both the legislature and the executive.

Of the channels and streams monitored, only GMA-7 did not provide expert panels to discuss their reactions, giving the SONA little time for a post-mortem evaluation. Anchor Pia Arcangel only did a quick recap, then advised viewers to stay tuned for the primetime newscast. GMA News TV, which only carried the stream of radio station dzBB, also did a brief recap, then immediately interviewed Drilon to get his reaction, the first news program to do so. Teleradyo and TV5 followed suit.

Sustaining discussion

TV channels went back to their regular primetime newscasts at 6:30 pm, with reporters providing more extensive recaps which they had recorded earlier, supplemented with video clips from the SONA footage, which included the opening of sessions in the House and Senate and scenes from the anti-SONA protest in UP earlier in the day.

Palace reporters of TV5 and CNN Philippines supplied more analyses of the SONA. Triciah Terada of CNN Philippines said Duterte only recalled what the government has done so far in its COVID-19 response and did not go into the steps needed in moving forward; and that he admitted lapses in aid distribution and delays in ramping up testing capacities. Maricel Halili’s exchange with TV5 anchors Ed Lingao and Cheryl Cosim scored the lack of measures to address unemployment.

Online news sites also did their own summaries of Duterte’s speech. Notably, Philstar.com and Rappler’s were more pointed in the framing of the SONA as failing to touch on urgent public concerns. Some of their stories:



Duterte’s 2020 SONA offered little comfort to a public wary and weary of the pandemic. He said little to indicate that Filipinos can look forward to better days, little to comfort so many who have lost jobs, and forced to go back to the provinces to avoid hunger and homelessness in Metro Manila. With hardly anything to say about economic recovery, the president himself justified this decision not to be bothered.

The media did not say it. But for the penultimate SONA of his term, the president looked like he had given up on the job he had sworn to do.