Mon, 18 Oct 2021

This Week in Media (September 13 to 17)

18 Sep 2021, 16:13 GMT+10

GOVERNMENT HAD much to do this week with schools opening and the launch of a new system to classify the levels of risk related to COVID-19. Other matters unfolding in Congress also called for attention.

As the Senate closed in on the details in the scandal involving Pharmally, testimonies revealed how well connected it was to gain billions worth of contracts to supply PPEs and masks. Senator Bong Go suddenly shied away from his political campaign. President Duterte swore he would counter the attacks against his friends and officials with his own against critics in the Senate, starting with Senator Richard "Dick" Gordon. Duterte called the Commission on Audit (COA) to probe the Philippine Red Cross which Gordon had headed for years, clearly unaware of the limits of COA's purview. Still punching with his mouth, the president also barred his Cabinet from attending and testifying in the Senate without his permission.

Duterte's political allies in the House of Representatives (HOR) were ready to give him support. The Committee on Governance started its own probe this week but with a slightly different purpose. In its first session on September 15, SAGIP Representative Rodante Marcoleta, one of the representatives who campaigned for the non-renewal of ABS-CBN franchise, was quick to point out that the process which awarded contracts to Pharmally was exempted from the usual bidding regulations because the Bayanihan to Heal as One Law suspended these for the procurement of pandemic supplies.

Media picked up on government's state of unpreparedness for the two key events of the week. A chorus of complaints from parents, students and even teachers accompanied the start of DepEd's first online school year. On the COVID front, the release of a new classification of risks was delayed from the original date set for launching on September 6. The Interagency Task Force (IATF) piloted the system of alerts on September 16. Senate and HOR proceedings were covered live.

But the Palace was ready to immediately respond to the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to proceed with the investigation of the drug war killings and the death squads in Davao when Duterte was still mayor. Former presidential mouthpiece and now legal adviser Salvador Panelo promptly retorted that the government would not allow the investigation as "that's interference into our domestic affairs" because "Yung ating bansa, napakalusog ng judicial system. . . lahat ng mga kaso na hinahain na-poprosecute (We have a strong judicial system...all of the charges filed are prosecuted.)" It was a mouthful that deserves more than just media's regurgitation.

NCR under Alert Level 4

The IATF explained how the system uses Alert levels instead of the declaration of the different levels of quarantine. Alert levels 1 to 4 can be compared to a general community quarantine (GCQ) while the highest Alert Level 5 works like the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ). Each level imposes varying restrictions for closed areas, crowded areas and close-contact areas. Alongside these classifications, a local government unit may implement granular lockdowns or micro-level quarantines for highly critical areas.

IATF placed Metro Manila under Alert Level 4 based on "high and/or increasing case count with high bed and intensive care unit utilization rate." The alert level allows the opening of several establishments. All activities and services outdoors are allowed at 30 percent capacity, while indoor activities and services are at 10 percent and will cater only to fully vaccinated individuals. Interzonal travel is allowed but subject to regulations by the local government unit at origin or destination.

Most media organizations were quick to report and clarify the guidelines pointing out the differences from previous classifications.

The Inquirer hit a soft spot when it reported on September 15 that in the midst of re-branding the system of risk classification, cases have continued to rise. As of September 14, the Philippine has recorded 2.3 million cases with 177,670 active cases and 35,529 deaths. The report then proceeded to recall the number of times the country has gone through "surges" with the latest one in August setting record-breaking peaks, demonstrating the failure to act strategically to meet emerging threats. The same report flagged the imposition of "no warning" lockdowns and the arrests of lockdown violators, as it cited the statements of Cabinet members including Secretary of Interior and Local Government Eduardo Ano and Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya.

The media made the effort to help people understand and work through the government's erratic COVID-19 policy. But journalists need to focus more on areas where government action has been inexplicably slow, including vaccination, the urgent support for hospitals and health care workers, and using more science and research in shaping pandemic policy.

The government's determination to highlight only the positive and to silence critics has gotten in the way of rational policies, exposing the haphazard and random decisions regarding the declaration and lifting of quarantines. DOH's recorded data of cases nationwide is wasted if it cannot apply strong scientific analysis as CMFR points out in In Context.

With the pilot run of Alerts now in place, media must keep an eye not just on how but also on whether the new classifications make any difference.

Blended learning, year two

Education Secretary Leonor Briones claimed that the opening of classes on September 13 was "triumphant" and should be celebrated "with great joy;" inviting the media to cover the event. Media reviewed the situation and found some same-old problems that have remained without resolution, along with the new hardships of remote or distance learning.

Two reports drew CMFR's cheer for reviewing complaints against the quality of distance learning modules, while reflecting long-standing problems that have weakened basic education in the country.

A series of reports from Rappler and Inquirer highlighted the difficulties of teachers, students and parents with distance learning. The reports cited several studies to note the challenges that need government's urgent response.

Broadcast programs showed videos of parents lining up to get modules for their children. The interviews put on record complaints about the poor quality of distance learning programs. A TV Patrol case study aired on September 15 included a mother, with no education, who said she is struggling to understand her child's modules, and more so, in trying to teach her child.

In early August, the Unicef said that the closure of schools has hurt vulnerable children most, especially those living in poverty. UNESCO, in the same month, reported that the Philippines and Venezuela are the only countries in the world that have yet to start face-to-face classes.

According to mouthpiece Harry Roque, Duterte is open to jumpstart face-to-face classes in around 120 schools in low-risks areas. But media reports noted that some parents will not take the risk until the government provides a safe learning environment for their child. That government cannot assure this even in the second year of the pandemic proves how badly government has failed the primary objective of containing the disease from the start.

CMFR's In Context discussed how the pandemic has greatly affected PH education. But there are fundamental weaknesses which call for more radical and foundational interventions.

Duterte tantrums

This week saw another Duterte rant fest as the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee continued its probe into the irregularities in the procurement of COVID-19 essential kits by the administration. Duterte, for the Nth time, took jabs at several senators questioning the administration's motives for awarding Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corp a PHP12 billion deal despite its lack of financial capacity.

On September 13, Duterte barred his Cabinet from attending congressional hearings without his permission. Roque said that the president could issue an executive order to formalize his mandate, citing a Supreme Court decision in which Cabinet members cannot be held in contempt if they refuse to attend investigations by Congress upon the direction of the President.

Media were quick to recall that this was a repeat of the 2005 executive order (EO) 604 by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But according to, the EO was revoked in 2007 after a meeting between government lawyers and members of religious groups.

The media also interviewed experts who questioned Duterte's move.

In a BusinessWorld report, Michael Henry Yusingco, a senior research fellow at the Ateneo de Manila University Policy Center, questioned the timing of the order. Yusingco said that, "it is in best interest of the President to make sure these allegations are directly answered immediately."

In the same report, constitutional expert Antonio La Vina said that "the President cannot invoke this executive privilege when government officials are compelled to appear before a legislative hearing."

The report also recalled that in 2014, the late senator Mirriam Defensor Santiago said of. former President Benigno Aquino III that in case he forbids his budget secretary from answering congressional questions related to the Disbursement Acceleration Program, "the doctrine of executive privilege is recognized only in relation to (a) certain type of information of a sensitive character."

Duterte's outbursts should be contextualized as a default ego response. Duterte has shown that he acts first and foremost to assert his ruthless use of power to get back at critics or enemies. It has been shown time and again that as a person of authority, his primary concern has not gone beyond the protection and advancement of his personal concerns. The staggering lack of statesmanship burdens his administration and taints public officials who serve him. Assess and discern must be the journalists' mantra given this kind of leader. Media cannot miss this context as it collects and interprets the facts.

Harry Roque departs for New York to Campaign

An angry public confronted with a sharp backlash Roque's rant against medical workers. The Inquirer last week released a leaked recording of his tirade against the head of the College of Physicians, Dr. Maricar Limpin. Several groups called for his resignation. Going around is a signature campaign to prevent the spokesperson's nomination as board member of the International Law Commission (ILC). The Spokesperson is currently in New York to campaign for his nomination.

The media reported the sentiments of the people by quoting groups like the Free Legal Assistance Group's (FLAG) saying that Roque is "unworthy" to be considered for the post due to his "lack of integrity and character."

Asked for an apology after the backlash, Roque said that he was just carried away and was speaking for the workforce whose livelihood was halted due to the lockdowns. But it was the government which imposed lockdowns as its primary response to COVID-19 in the past year. The government's incapacity to find the balance between public health and the economy left the country dancing around the COVID-19 rate's inconsistent rise and drop. That, the media should have pointed out - but didn't.

Other developing stories

Other breaking news and developing stories from the media this week:

  • The 2022 election budget was cut amidst the need for a safe election during the pandemic.
  • Japan warned citizens of possible terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia including the Philippines.

More next week.

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