Back in Power: Arroyo and the Media the Second Time Around

by Ana Catalina Paje

MULTIPLE ALLEGATIONS hounded Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s nine-year presidency. These included electoral sabotage, plunder, a record-high number of human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings of activists and the massacre of 52 civilians in Ampatuan, Maguindanao.  She was detained for four years under hospital arrest because of charges filed against her after her term. The scandals continue to cast its shadow over her current political triumphs. After four years out of power, a political comeback seemed nearly impossible for the former president. But in 2016, Arroyo walked away from court, acquitted of the plunder charge — and two years after her release, she occupies the government’s fourth highest post as Speaker of the House of Representatives. She and her supporters managed a House coup d’etat that stole media attention from President Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 2018. Then deposed House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez turned off the microphone and allegedly hid the symbolic mace, but all this accomplished was delay the inevitable transfer of power. When Arroyo ascended to the rostrum, the public witnessed the bizarre end to Alvarez’ dubious command of the House. The former president’s rise to her current post proves that despite the scandals of her past, she has retained her hold and influence in the Duterte administration. For the most part, media’s coverage has been short-sighted, reporting from the narrowest of perspectives; focusing on the political transactions in the House of Representatives that made her Speaker, but falling short of supplying the historical and political context of the events that transpired last July. Given most reports, the public would have had to recall on its own the corruption charges filed against her.  Among other effects, the reportage enhanced her projection as a political player, her strong political instincts and the political skill to rally support among the traditional politicians dominating the House.
So is Arroyo providing the much needed skill and competence that is needed in these desperate times? Is this skill going to be applied for the good of the country for her own personal gains? 


Arroyo’s takeover of the House, overshadowed the president’s third SONA in live coverage and commentary as well as on news pages and primetime. Media scrambled to pit Alvarez and Arroyo against each other. With only a few exceptions, the reports about the power-grab were bereft of analysis and fixated on the unfolding power struggle. An Inquirer report showed that while Alvarez was making powerful enemies with his abrasive leadership and aggressive push for a no-election scenario in 2019, Arroyo was strengthening her already formidable network of political allies. The 184 votes for Arroyo’s ascension to the speakership was a demonstration of how busy the former president had been in assuring her victory over Alvarez. But Arroyo was not alone in that enterprise. A Rappler report pieced together how Alvarez was ousted, revealing the alliance of three of the most influential women in the country’s troubled politics — Ilocos Gov. Imee Marcos, presidential daughter Inday Sara Duterte and Arroyo herself. According to the report, Imee Marcos mobilized her allies from the so-called “Solid North” against Alvarez, who is aligned with her rival, Ilocos Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas.  Although Duterte earlier denied any involvement in the ouster of Alvarez, he confirmed his daughter’s hand in it months later. In October, the president warned, “Be careful with that woman. She can oust even the Speaker.” Context followed, not from more news accounts but from opinion pieces and editorials: the Inquirer’s, “The importance of being Gloria” and The Star’sArroyo’s return to power: What it means and what could happen next.” Alvarez and his allies clung to what little power they had and vied for House Minority leadership. Ultimately, however, the declaration of Arroyo’s ally, Rep. Danilo Suarez (3rd District, Quezon) gained her another win. But few of the reports bothered to discuss the importance and the role of the minority leader; and thus failed to point out that this position should be filled by one in opposition to the majority. With an Arroyo loyalist in the post, most media did not raise questions about dysfunctional state in the House and the intended role of the minority leader under Arroyo’s new order.


Upon Arroyo’s election as House Speaker in July 2018, critics immediately questioned her motives and the legitimacy of her takeover. In a report published by the Inquirer, Sen. Grace Poe said that Arroyo is widely thought to favor a parliamentary system that would give equal powers to the president and the prime minister, which would make it possible for Arroyo to become head of state again, once a new Constitution provides for that shift. Arroyo has repeatedly denied politicking, claiming that without a prime minister in the proposed presidential-federal setup, she will not benefit from charter change. With her term ending this year, she cannot run in the coming elections due to term limits. But under her leadership, the House rushed a draft charter and passed it providing conditions under which she could run again. Media coverage failed to keep up with the quick passage in the House of the charter change legislation, and did not flag the irregularities of the process of passing the law. Few reports pointed out that the House plenary debates were cut short, preventing extensive arguments. Most media failed to probe the irregularity in the passing of the draft on its second reading with no quorum in the House. While some in the media may believe that the effort would not prosper in the Senate, it remains their responsibility to report fully on the integrity of the legislative process. Former Ateneo School of Government Dean Antonio La Viña believes that Arroyo pushed for the passage of the charter last December to stay in power and to protect herself from political backlash. Prof. Richard Heydarian, political analyst of GMA News, said that the removal of the term limits in the draft is one of Arroyo’s motivations to push for charter change.  But most of the media failed did not include such analysis in their reports. Earlier in July, the primetime newscasts (TV Patrol, 24 Oras, Aksyon) had already called attention to Arroyo’s activities outside her mandate as House Speaker which were oddly reminiscent of coverage while she was chief executive from 2001 to 2010. These reports tended to validate the contentions of Arroyo’s critics who questioned the political objectives behind the Arroyo’s wresting control of the House from Alvarez.


Arroyo’s reinstatement as a political force has set aside the chance of holding her accountable on the charges made against her. With news as the first draft of history, media reports must have context which would give more meaning to the recording of the facts. The failure to do so allows memory of even recent history to fade too quickly; giving way for historical revisionists to pursue their political agenda. Both print and broadcast media made an effort to recall her presidential track record, with some notable reports reminding the audience of the scandals that rocked her nine-year term. Primetime newscasts from GMA 7 and TV5 also recalled the highlights of Arroyo’s presidency. 24 Oras began with her career as Department of Trade and Industry assistant secretary in the late 80’s to her rise in government as president after then President Joseph Estrada was ousted in 2001, following this with a rundown of the controversies implicating her when she was president. Aksyon’s satirical segment Word of the Lourd (WOTL) poked fun at Arroyo’s promise not to run in 2002, featuring the “Hello Garci” clip  to claim that “she stole the presidency” in 2004. Inquirer’s What Went Before explainer provided a comprehensive timeline of the Arroyo scandals: from the Jose Pidal accounts in 2003 to the Maguindanao electoral sabotage in 2011. The report traced the court records showing Arroyo’s acquittal of plunder charges for misusing state lottery funds worth millions of dollars in 2012; the dismissal by the Ombudsman of the criminal complaint against her in the alleged use of the PHP900-million Malampaya fund. In December 2018, Arroyo was also acquitted of her electoral sabotage charges. In reporting this, some media organizations pointed out that not all charges against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have been dismissed, contrary to the claims of her lawyer, Atty. Ferdinand Topacio. La Viña believes that some of the allegations against Arroyo were weak and should be subjected to scrutiny. Although media cited some of these cases, the reports lacked a more comprehensive review. As in most reports on legal cases, only a few provided interpretation. Neither was media able to point out what precautions the government should be taking in its dealings with China, given Arroyo’s history of problematic deals with China and its companies, including the NBN-ZTE deal and the North and South Railway projects.


Reporting politics can be a complex affair.  The coverage of Speaker Arroyo should not have been limited only to breaking stories culled from sources in the House of Representatives. Her damaged and damaging record as president should have alerted the media to be on guard against political manipulation, which their unquestioning reports could help her and her allies to realize their  political ambitions. So is Arroyo providing the much needed skill and competence that is needed in these desperate times? Is this skill going to be applied for the good of the country for her own personal gains? Covering political maneuvers of experienced and skilled politicians like Arroyo require zeal and enterprise. Keeping tabs on the political action in the halls of Congress as well as out of Congress requires constant watching, with journalists initiating their independent probes. Quoting political statements is not enough. Reporters should provide the public with as much information as possible about the political moves in Congress, including the progress of critical bills and the rushed passage of questionable laws — only this kind of comprehensive reporting can help the public make sound and reasonable judgment about Arroyo. So far, the media has failed to do the job.