Tue, 11 May 2021

Media Review

16 Apr 2021, 21:13 GMT+10

Every two weeks, CMFR will provide a quick recap of the media coverage of the biggest stories or issues, noting the same slips that our monitors have been doing. We intend this as a quick mapping of news, providing a guide for journalists and identifying gaps in reporting, the lack of interpretation and analysis as necessary. This section also hopes to engage more public attention and participation in current events, and for them to learn the practice of media monitoring. It is after all the public that serves as the best watchdog of press power.

THE DISMAL news during the period under review could not have been more sorrowful than the Holy Week under ECQ, with liturgical observance and prayer consigned for the second year to virtual experience.

With the rise in cases showing in mid-March, the declaration of the "GCQ bubble" in the Greater Manila Area was inevitable. The fits and starts in the rollout of the vaccine program sparked some healthy competition among LGUs for kudos from constituencies who were served. Meanwhile, the phalanx of some 220 Chinese militia vessels also provoked the strongest statements from key officials which distanced their positions from President Duterte's high tolerance of China's incursions in the West Philippine Sea.

Crunching numbers = factual reporting

With numbers of COVID cases stabilizing in February, the IATF declared that nothing should stop the re-opening of the economy, drumming up travel, restaurants, even movie houses. With the failed arrival of vaccines as announced, the public was understandably doubtful whether authorities would minimize risks in implementing the policy.

At that point the media was doing no more than post DOH's daily bulletin of case counts, pointing to differentials from the previous day. The limited focus failed to alert the public to the significant spike in cases from the middle of March. The IATF for its part seemed completely blind to the warning signs.

It was John Nery's op-ed column in the Inquirer on March 23 that tracked the increases from March 12 to 20, highlighting the peaks since 2020: 4,578 on March 12 as the highest in the last six months, and 5,404 on March 15 as the highest in the last seven months. By March 20, 7,999 was the highest daily total of cases since the pandemic hit the country.

Nery made a political statement in his column. But news accounts should have simply noted and provided these same statistics as scientific facts to indicate how vicious the surge could be; and to ask on behalf of the people when the lockdown was declared on March 22: Was the IATF ready with measures so as to ensure the exercise would be more protective and not just restrictive?

Surge and lockdown

Screengrab from Rappler.com

News coverage, as well as social media threads, sounded the echo of last year's reportage: long lines at checkpoints, long waits for public transportation, the zealous apprehension of violators of curfew and health protocols. Government blamed the public's non-compliance for the surge of the cases, and some media merely repeated the official line, that the public was "pasaway" (non-compliant).

CMFR cheered Rappler's report on the surge of cases in government offices located in the capital, showing up the negligence of those in charge of agencies in exposing their rank-and-file to COVID-19 with officials' non-adherence to health and safety protocols.

Media had reported the non-compliance of public officials, including Debold Sinas, the PNP chief himself who later tested positive for COVID-19. Sinas was the same person who was reported as having held his birthday party with guests, mostly police, who did not wear masks and observe physical distancing. Earlier in March, Sinas evaded health screening when he arrived in Oriental Mindoro.

Presidential mouthpiece Harry Roque's failures to observe health protocols were well documented through PR accounts of his personal, non-essential travels. His testing positive for COVID-19 on March 15 served as a news peg for the interview segment "Deretsahan" of TV5's Frontline Pilipinas, which he easily used for self-promotion. CMFR jeered the news feature.

Much of the media seemed to hold back from presenting the real picture, the dire lack of preparation for the surge. There was no documentation of how quickly the once empty quarantine facilities had been filled to capacity and of the lack of medical staff and supplies - a replay of 2020. Quoting the banal observation of the DOH secretary, that they did not expect the surge to be so severe, ("Hindi naman natin alam na papalo nang ganito kataas"), media did not refer to the experience of surge in other countries which had done better than the Philippines in containing the disease. Without reference and context, media succeeded to make the stupid remark somewhat reasonable when it was utterly inexcusable.

The Inquirer's March 19 editorial "Back to before" summed up everything wrong with the government's response that has made this year a "virtual rehash of early 2020": spiking cases, neglected workers, absurd rules, erring officials and clueless leadership.

Vaccine rollout mess

Screengrab from ABS-CBNNews.com.

The country's vaccine supply had not been augmented since its rollout in Metro Manila on March 1. The daily vaccination rate remained low through March, indicating government's failure to fulfill its own set objective to vaccinate a total of 70 million Filipinos and achieve herd immunity by the end of 2021.

CMFR cheered ABS-CBN's vaccine tracker of the progress of inoculation per region. As of this posting, Rappler has also produced its own tracker.

Media did pick up officials and celebrities the jumping the vaccination queue, who quickly claimed that they should be considered as frontliners, with some of them adding how they wanted to boost vaccine confidence. Actor Mark Anthony Fernandez was also vaccinated, prompting questions about his inclusion in the priority list. His LGU was quick to defend him as someone with co-morbidities, thus making him eligible for a vaccine. The Palace chimed in about how a substitution could be made in case some of those in the priority sector refuse to get vaccinated, but reports did not probe this further.

Media did not question Duterte's approval of the controversial decision of DOH to recall the second doses of AstraZeneca, which had already been distributed to different areas in the country. The order intended to use the second doses as first doses to cover more health care workers amid the surge in cases. DOH said the provincial authorities would have to use their supplies by March 24 or else these would be taken back for use in places experiencing greater need. Media reported the announcement and the reaction of LGUs in the provinces who followed up their complaints with resignation that they could not do anything if DOH did recall what they had already received.

Accounts did not attempt to shake down more information from the talking heads. Why the shortage of vaccines so early in the game? The so-called vaccine czar, Carlito Galvez, exuded confidence in February that he had negotiated for sufficient amounts of vaccine to achieve his target for 2021.

In reporting all kinds of challenges in the vaccine program, reporters failed to connect the dots and establish how haphazard statements made by officials can cause public confusion and even lapses in implementation. For example, Duterte, who signed the COVID Vaccination Program Act, seemed unaware of the law's provisions on indemnification and the process of the private sector's participation in vaccine procurement. Commendably, TV, print and online media recalled that Duterte had signed the law himself: Inquirer.net, Philstar.com and Rappler immediately established Duterte's confusion or lack of awareness in their respective leads and headlines.

Meanwhile, media reported the FDA's grant of emergency use authorization (EUA) for Sputnik V, the vaccine manufactured by Russia's Gamaleya Institute. Previous reports said Sputnik V's efficacy is at 91.6% based on late stage trial results published in The Lancet. It is the fourth vaccine to be given an EUA by the Philippine FDA, after Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Sinovac. But media did not have information about when supplies would be available.

Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe reef

Pandemic or not, China did not restrain its show of strength in Philippine waters with 220 Chinese fishing vessels moored for more than two weeks in Julian Felipe Reef. The National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea said there was no actual fishing being done; that the vessels were believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia.

The sighting of the Chinese ships happened only a few days before the arrival of the latest batch of China-donated vaccines. Media quoted Retired Justice Antonio Carpio's comment that the free vaccines were China's way of "softening" their incursion.

Media picked up the exchange of words involving the Chinese Embassy, DFA secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Locsin's tweets said more as he did not share the content of this diplomatic protest. The Chinese Embassy maintained the reef as part of Chinese territory.

Predictably, the Palace downplayed the incident and claimed Duterte had raised the matter with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian. There was nothing heard from the president himself.

Journalists who flew on the military patrol aircraft reported on March 30 that while 44 vessels remain in Julian Felipe Reef, 200 more were scattered across other reefs and islands built by the Chinese in the West Philippine Sea. Reporters said Chinese radio warnings asked the Filipino aircraft to leave the area.

Palawan plebiscite: One bright spot

In 2019, Duterte signed Republic Act 11259, splitting the province of Palawan into three distinct provinces: Palawan del Norte, del Sur and Oriental. An obvious case of gerrymandering, the law had to be approved by a plebiscite vote scheduled on March 13.

The people roundly rejected the proposed division of the province, as the campaign by civil society and church leaders argued against the measure.

The Manila-centric national media generally framed the plebiscite as a local voting event, without elaborating on the national significance of the people's voice rejecting what had been legislated. Print relegated the issue to the regional sections, while broadcast reports placed the issue halfway into newscasts. For the month of March, news coverage was limited to the local aspects of the plebiscite process. Notably, it did not highlight the power of the people's campaign.

SC statement on killings of lawyers

Last March 10, Rappler first called attention to the systemic killings of lawyers, citing a study from the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) that half of the killings of Filipino lawyers since 2016 were work-related. In another report published March 15, Rappler cited its own research and FLAG's study noting that more than half or 61 of the 110 killings documented from 1977 to 2021 happened under the Duterte administration. Of the 61 killings, four cases involved policemen as perpetrators.

Other media did not lag behind, promptly picking up on Rappler's lead. Reports online and on TV cited FLAG and other lawyers' groups such as National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL) calling for an end to the violence and impunity.

Amid mounting pressure from the legal community, the Supreme Court (SC) en banc issued a statement on March 23 condemning the killings and vowing to look into institutional changes to better protect lawyers. But media did not ask further what concrete changes can prevent more killings.

The SC's surprising turn could have ripple effects on other attempts to counter impunity of human rights violations, especially as perpetrated by state agents. But without follow-up, the resolve could turn cold on media's back burners.

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