THE DUTERTE campaign in 2015 harnessed the power of social media to coordinate unified messages in a continuing flow, using social media influencers to paint an image of the mayor running for president in the most favorable light. After Duterte won, the Palace communications team continued the same strategy to consolidate its leadership, attacking the opposition, fixing false narratives and demonizing critics of the administration.
But when it came to informing the public with basic information about the pandemic —the government seemed quite at a loss about using the power of communication to advise and guide the people so they can act prudently and ensure health security for themselves and for others.
There was no widespread, systematic dissemination of information about the simple tools of protection: the need to wear a mask, the consistent and correct use of the mask, the ranking of masks for the protection needed in different environments, the method of washing hands, the approximate measure of social distance — explaining why these are important in preventing transmission of infection when one had to go out.
These messages should have been deployed on both government and private broadcast media, including channels at the level of the community, all the way down to every barangay.
The government also failed to utilize other resources at its disposal such as information communication technology (ICT) to maximize the impact of its pandemic response. In April, CMFR cheered a column by Cielito Habito in the Inquirer pointing out the need for ICT in obtaining timely and accurate data: “It looks like ICT and data science have been buried deep in the box of technology tools our government has so far deployed in the fight against COVID-19.” Habito also questioned the diminished role of DICT in the government’s information dissemination efforts.
Ironically, the administration was not hampered in fielding talking heads. In fact, it had too many. But none of them were particularly expert in the issues of the pandemic; nor did any of them seem focused on public health and well-being. The goal was simply self-serving promotion.
Daily, four televised briefings provided updates on the situation and the actions undertaken by different agencies. But these spokespersons did not seem to be communicating with one another, to make sure they were clear and in agreement about securing and protecting public health. The result was a clutter of information which did not clarify policy and implementation of programs. It was as though they were holding the briefings so that their voices could be heard or their faces seen on screens.
Until late April, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, spokesperson of the IATF-MEID held a briefing from 9 to 10 am; Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar hosted the Laging Handa briefing with Undersecretary Rocky Ignacio at 11 a.m. Sometimes, this would feature interviews with other officials.
The DOH gave daily updates from its headquarters delivered by Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire. Ret. General Carlito Galvez, Jr., the chief implementer of the national action plan on COVID-19 took over at the day’s end from Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City. Sometimes, this was taken over by Ret. General Restituto Padilla, spokesperson of the National Task Force against COVID-19 (NTF).
Of course, the presidential spokesperson, Harry Roque, did his thing on the appointed time, and he too would speak on the same policy matters. On top of all these, Duterte himself began his Monday night briefings, doing it live at first and shifting on occasion to pre-recorded speeches.
The shortcomings on the part of talking heads were stark. Among the most obvious gaps was the lack of information about the post-lockdown measures to avoid surges of the disease. There was little talk as well about government plans to revive the economy and to assist SMEs. As June approached, Duterte insisted that schools would remain closed. But there was little heard about the closure of so many private schools, perhaps, never to re-open. DepEd officials may have talked about the inevitable loss of learning when distance/online learning is not supplanted with physical face-to-face teaching. But these were not discussed. An educational crisis was building up but the government talking heads were mostly silent on the issues.
The stream of information, the multiplicity of voices, the diverging positions and the contradictory statements added to the weight of the restrictions rather than relieve the public of needless worries. Officials were caught contradicting each other which could only mean that they did not take the time to discuss these issues before speaking to the public. While the IATF convened the meetings, the resulting incoherence suggested that these meetings brought together staff rather than the decision makers.
Media coverage followed the talking heads without probing into the issues, because journalists who wanted to ask more questions could not get the answers.
Reporter Jovic Yee of the Inquirer complained that he could never get any clear answers from DOH. Yee noted the restrictive nature of the DOH briefings in the first month of the lockdown, which requires journalists to send questions in advance. He reported, “Incisive queries or clarifications on health policies implemented by the administration often do not get answered.”
As PCIJ pointed out, the quarantine has also curbed public access to information. Their report published in June 2020 found that despite Duterte’s much hyped “Freedom of Information EO,” both national and local government agencies have either delayed responding to or denied requests for COVID-related information about government spending and financial assistance.
The administration continued to restrict access as a way of controlling public opinion. ABS-CBN, one of the country’s major broadcast networks, awaited the decision on its application for renewal of its franchise, the deliberations of which had been stalled in the House of Representatives through the 17th and18th congresses.
Representatives of the network sat through 12 hearings on ABS-CBN’s alleged violations, which other government agencies had already proven baseless. But on July 10, the House Committee on Legislative Franchises and ex-officio members denied ABS-CBN’s franchise application with an overwhelming 70-11 vote. The Palace tried to distance itself from the issue. But it was clear it was the president himself who initiated the shutdown of ABS-CBN down since he first publicly threatened to cancel the franchise in 2017. His success cut off communities in remote areas along with numerous Filipinos abroad from their major source of Philippines news.
READ CMFR MONITORS ON THE ISSUE:
“Only one out of 10 such requests filed before the government’s eFOI portal from March 13 to May 27 has been granted. Out of over a thousand requests for information from journalists and other citizens, about half, Ilagan found, are still being processed, with a third outrightly denied.” |Despite Duterte Freedom of Information EO: Access to information narrows during pandemic
“Even at this point, with so much time lost, ICT can still enhance the impact of the much anticipated testing protocols of the DOH. On a more basic function, ICT tools can disseminate the information that communities must know, such as when and where to go for test or treatment.” | The importance of information in time of pandemic
“But media have yet to discuss more fully the grave, long-term impact of the loss of ABS-CBN’s franchise, the effect on different sectors as well as on the institutional relationships involving government, the press and the people, which all warrant more analysis in the news.” |Media should report on ABS-CBN shutdown fallout