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With few exceptions, media barely note VP message | CMFR

With few exceptions, media barely note VP message

Screengrab from VP Leni Robredo’s Facebook video.

AHEAD OF the schedule briefing of the president on that day Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo aired a 20-minute video message on Facebook last August 24. She said she had been in consultation with economists and other experts who were concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 on the country’s economy.  She proposed eleven measures to help boost the economy and provide economic relief to those most affected by the crisis.

Robredo stressed that health and economic problems should not be viewed separately. Towards the end of her message, Robredo noted that there is a great need during the crisis for decisive leadership, without which Filipinos should be ready to rely on themselves and on one another to survive the challenges they face. She closed her message by expressing confidence that Filipinos will overcome the crisis.

This is not the first time that Robredo has offered recommendations to the administration regarding COVID-19. On June 30, she wrote to Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque detailing suggestions to improve the government’s response to the pandemic. On July 30, she aired a Facebook video identifying areas where the government response has failed so far, presenting solutions to some of the problems.

But like her previous efforts, Robredo’s latest message was not received well by the Palace. Responding only to Robredo’s comment on leadership, Duterte told her not to “add fuel to the fire” because she would just “destroy government.”

Media in general downplayed Robredo’s message. Only a few news organizations took the time to look into her proposals to improve the government response to the crisis.

CMFR monitored the coverage of six Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard, Daily Tribune, The Manila Times), four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s One Balita Pilipinas and CNN Philippines’ News Night), the online counterparts of these broadsheets and channels, and the independent news sites Rappler and Interaksyon from August 24 to 26.

In print, only the Bulletin noted Robredo’s suggestions, which include, among others, wage subsidies for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs); a PHP5,000 monthly aid for the 10 million poorest families for the next four months; the creation of an unemployment insurance system; and implementing reintegration programs for returning OFWs. The story also noted Robredo’s comment that the Philippines still operates on a pre-COVID budget, and that the Bayanihan 2 bill would not provide sufficient funds for what government has to do. While Congress passed the law on August 24, it was still awaiting the president’s signature at press time.

News Night temporarily cut short its program to air a few minutes of Robredo’s message, the only newscast to do so on August 24. Anchor Pia Hontiveros repeated some points that Robredo said, but News Night did not report further on the issue.

TV Patrol’s Adrian Ayalin took time to recall Robredo’s 11-point recommendation. He also interviewed local dressmakers who acknowledged the government’s training programs for making PPEs, but expressed concern that the government still relies heavily on imported ones. This was one of the issues that Robredo raised — for government to empower local producers so they can meet the standards set by the government for PPEs.

Aside from discussing Robredo’s points, Rappler, Philstar.com and Interaksyon all provided further analysis and context, demonstrating the validity of the points made by the vice president:

Rappler: “The Vice President herself has spent the past months helping fill the gaps that her office has identified in the government’s pandemic response. Robredo’s office was able to pull these off  by partnering with different private institutions and nongovernmental organizations, then linking them to medical facilities and local governments in need.”

Philstar.com: “As in her earlier addresses, Robredo emphasized the importance of proper data collection and of making decisions based on that data. Among the data she said is important is information that will help with contact tracing.”

Interaksyon: “For the vice president, the main problem of the national government is complacency and lack of empathy for the needs of its constituents which therefore left the public feeling abandoned by their leaders and hopeless amid the ongoing health crisis. Robredo hoped for the government to cooperate, empathize and listen to the needs of Filipinos to overcome the pandemic.”

The reactions of President Duterte and other officials are part of the continuing problem that the administration has about any kind of critical commentary, even if these are obviously constructive. The administration tends to paint any criticism as coming from the political opposition and has refused to consider any of these as a starting point for collaboration or acting on initiatives which deserve to be tried.

Forming an echo chamber for what the government has to say, media have painted Robredo as an opposition figure determined to make the government look bad. But the record shows that Vice President Robredo has been quiet for much of the time, and has done her job without critical comment on the failure of the administration on a number of crucial fronts to control the disease and to protect life and livelihood.

Leni Robredo may be the head of the Liberal Party, but that opposition has hardly played a strong role in challenging the president’s authority. And so media should know better than just ignore what Robredo has to say. She has undertaken her own activities with little government support or funding and done creditably well in providing supplies, temporary shelter and transportation to assist frontliners.

Whether it is coming from the opposition or from politically neutral parties, media should have enough independence to discern when a speech is newsworthy. Commentary is part of journalism. It helps the public evaluate how government is doing and consider other options which have not been attempted. It seems obvious that the government needs help, as it has done so very poorly compared to the other countries in the region. Media sidelining any constructive criticism is unfortunate, as it reduces opportunities to discuss ways to move forward in this pandemic. It also shows what the media have become: a recorder of the administration, wary of offending the powers that be and willing to do their bidding.