Call for media solidarity on Covid

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

IN CRISIS, the impulse to call out failings is tempered by the already high level of tension and anxiety. Why add to the difficulties?

Social media influencers in support of government have asked Filipinos to let the leaders lead, “just cooperate and follow.”

But media’s function remains critical and urgently important as the pandemic continues to raise the number of cases of infection in the country. WHO has noted how governments had lagged in taking up timely and urgent precautions to address COVID’s threatened spread. And media’s task remains: to monitor and report how well government is doing its job.

The evidence has so far been damning for President Duterte. From the earliest stages, the government seemed more concerned about pleasing China rather than confront the challenge. Obviously, its belated responses do not reflect the kind of hard analysis needed to formulate a comprehensive policy. The health department gave primacy to diplomacy, restraining its call for closing down travel to and from China for fear of singling out the country which had been declared as the origin of the virus. The Inter-Agency Task Force which DOH helmed had heads of member agencies issuing statements on their own, revealing the lack of coordination at this high level. Even as the number of cases rose, there was little information indicating a larger comprehensive COVID plan.

President Duterte gave three press conferences that showed up the piece-meal approach it was applying to control the spread. His reliance on law enforcement measures placed the PNP and military at the forefront of his response. Little was heard from the health and epidemic experts. Obviously the highest levels of command and authority did not know what was best, did not consult the countries with demonstrated successes such as South Korea.

In the first briefing, the chief executive gave heads of local government units, down to the barangay, the authority to undertake what they thought best for their communities, only to question some of the modifications adopted by one of the more pro-active mayors, Pasig’s Vico Sotto. That he announced the enhanced home quarantine and the lockdown of Luzon in three separate conferences betrayed the haphazard approach to the pandemic. Media quoted Duterte’s “conclusion” that more stringent measures are required, without any effort to explain the logic of these half-measures. No one dared suggest that maybe the administration was really at a loss about what it has to do.

It has taken the initiative of the private sector to make the critical move: call on government to designate the hospitals that would take care of all COVID cases, including the people under investigation (PUIs). This would at least allow other hospitals to deal with the health needs of the population, whose access to urgent medical treatment has been hampered by the fear of contamination in any hospital.

The Duterte administration has been dealt a blow, and one that has exposed its lack of effective leadership when it matters most. History is filled with the instances in which crisis engulfed stable governments, threatened experienced leaders with ouster or rejection which parliamentary systems allow. For our system, the fixed term provides the administration time to re-group and recover and redeem itself. And for all our sakes, we can only hope that the executive does acknowledge that he and his officials may not have what it takes to do this well, and so must seek the help of others.

President Duterte has had to call on businessmen to do their part, and share the burden of alleviating the losses for wage earners, for renters and other clients. To their credit, these business leaders, some of whom had been the object of presidential insults, have not held back, responding even ahead of government’s Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and the Department of Finance which acted late on extending deadlines for tax payments. Unprecedented as well, the churches that had been pilloried by the president have cooperated with the suspension of the mass, readily shifting to digital platforms for shared prayer and reflection.

Given the glaring lapses on the part of government, media are in that odd place. Reports have disseminated the directives for lockdown, house quarantine and the expanded lockdown for Luzon. But the press is also called upon to fulfill the most visible of its roles as watchdog of power and as a public sentinel. A global emergency calls for the highest levels of transparency and accountability for those in authority. Governments need to lead their communities through these profound difficulties. The public under lockdown and quarantine could be easily kept ignorant. Thus the importance of media’s vigilance which on behalf of the people should keep them informed about the conduct of government.

Amid the crisis, Philippine media have responded with caution and compassion for the public. They have applied a positive lens, selecting stories that show a community at work together, with private initiatives supplanting whatever lack with their own resources.

The public was caught off-guard with the strict impositions on individual movements and the suspension of public transportation. The absence of clear guidelines triggered mass exodus from the city as well as needless panic buying. Commendably, journalists exerted efforts to further clarify the provisions of the president’s order. But only a few reports could make sense of the inconsistent and ever-changing statements from concerned Cabinet members. The Inquirer’s editorial on March 17 stands out for its coherent documentation of the state of official confusion.

It was left to the opinion columns to question the wisdom of using mainly law enforcement agencies on the frontlines of a public health emergency. High-ranking officials had already threatened to arrest uncooperative civilians prior to the quarantine, but human rights lawyers and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra himself declared such a move illegal. Reports did not highlight the contradictory views expressed by the administration.

So far, given its occupational dependence on government information, news organizations have been hampered by the failure of government spokespersons to lead with credible and relevant information. The Inquirer editorial on March 20 promptly called out the inaccuracies peddled by a ranking administration official, no less than the spokesperson of the president, who claimed that the imposition of lockdown was following the example of South Korea. South Korea has been successful in controlling the rise of cases but has never imposed a lockdown. Philstar.com and VERA Files also did fact-checks on this issue.

Journalists are called to do more. As media have reported huge amounts of funding dedicated to COVID issues, it should readily scrutinize the use of these funds, assess their effective use. Is the production of test kits ongoing on? How well will they be distributed? Moving forward, what is being done to prepare other regions in the country to handle the same? These are belated measures but must be scrutinized just the same.

Media coverage of this issue clearly required a public health lens, with particular focus on epidemiology. Notably, some public affairs programs in ANC and CNN Philippines devoted airtime for discussions with experts, including former Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit who as an epidemiologist, dealt with the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) during his tenure in the Arroyo administration. Media should keep the lines to him and other specialists open to enhance reportage with the science of epidemics. Coverage should do more than tallying the cases, describing patient profiles and travel histories. At this point, media must help the public understand the course of the epidemic in the country and what approaches can still work. It would seem the designation of hospitals for COVID is a step in the right direction. The public should be briefed on this development so it can respond according to need.

Perhaps, this is one of the rare times when team reporting can cross organizational lines, at least for the major players. Who can worry about scoops and rivalry when so much is at stake? Media should join forces, consolidate their efforts to verify and to call out mis- or dis-information, get behind the stories, investigate as necessary the misuse of funds and resources. Coverage that provides timely information, guidelines and expert views should be shared by news organizations, giving credit as necessary, to extend the reach of these fact-based reports to a wider audience.

Acting together, no news organization need be afraid of being singled out for its coverage should this displease the administration. If there are official words and deeds that should be called out, official statements that need to be questioned, then the media can raise this together so as not to polarize the coverage on the basis of politics. Such institutional solidarity on the objective of informing the public about what it needs to know may discomfit sensitive public officials. But it is precisely what media must to do if we are to survive the pandemic.