Vantage Point

The transport, accommodations, athletic facilities, press accreditation and food issues, among others that hounded the Philippines’ hosting of the 30th Southeast Asian Games prior to its opening date, were real enough. But the response of government officials, Netizens, much of the public, and even the press itself to that “cauldron of errors” being reported by the Philippine media also underlined the need for developing authentic media literacy programs not only for the enlightenment of the citizenry but also, and perhaps even more urgently, for the education of the so-called leaders of this country.

However, if their coverage of the SEA Games controversy, which surged during the Senate budget hearings in early November, is any gauge, much of the media themselves need to seriously examine how they’ve been reporting the current chaos in Philippine governance and its consequences.

The value of such a review won’t be limited to the potential improvement in the way the press provides the information-needy public the reports about the Duterte regime that could help enhance its critical understanding of it. It would also upgrade the press’ capacity to report governance and politics in general as well as such other crucial issues as human rights and the environment.

Some media organizations had been on and off covering the preparations for the 2019 SEA games since early this year. But only opposition Senator Franklin Drilon’s questioning the P50 million+ cost of the “cauldron” that would contain the eternal flame that is the competitions’ symbol made the headlines. (It made the news again on Dec. 1. Instead of its being lit on the SEA Games’ Opening Day on Nov. 30 by boxer and part-time senator Manny Pacquiao, a tape of him doing it earlier was shown during the performance instead.) What followed Drilon’s complaint that that vessel cost too much was a veritable witches’ brew of finger-pointing, conflicting claims, and media battering.

House of Representatives Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, whose private foundation, the Philippine Sea Games Organizing Committee (Phisgoc), was incorporated in 2018 to organize things and undertake the preparations — and to get its grubby hands on the billions appropriated for the project — dismissed Drilon’s criticism, and then blamed him and the Senate for supposedly cutting the budget for the games. As Opening Day approached, and some foreign sports teams started arriving, the many gaffes that occurred also made the front pages, the six o’clock news, and the foreign newspapers and newscasts.

Almost predictably did Phisgoc officials and other Duterte regime partisans shift the blame from themselves to the press for reporting such instances of appalling incompetence as the Cambodian team’s being forced to sleep on the floor of the hotel where they were supposed to be billeted, Muslims athletes’ being served pork, and some game venues’ being unfinished. Cayetano even claimed that some members of the press may have been bribed to sabotage the Philippines’ hosting of the SEA Games and threatened to sue them for libel. One member of the House of Representatives went as far as to suggest the filing of sedition charges against the alleged “conspirators” behind the “plot.”

Still others, among them someone from Phisgoc who’s better left unnamed, demanded, bad grammar and all, that press reports be “positive” for the sake of patriotism — which in practical terms means journalists’ censoring themselves so as to keep the blunders and sheer incompetence of the organizers out of the media and hence out of the public mind and eye.

Few government bureaucrats and even fewer of their accomplices can get over their confusing journalism for public relations. The clueless creatures of the Duterte clique are no exception. Either they’re unable to think through the differences between one and the other, or simply can’t abide the fact that the primary responsibility of reporters is to report what happened, and, when necessary, to explain the meaning of the news regardless of the demands of this or that interest group, government official, or personality.

Unfortunately, however, the demand that journalists either report only the good news or else frame their reports in furtherance of an agenda flattering to a country, a government, or anyone else with a stake in favorable publicity is a perspective widely shared among the citizenry. This much was evident in the demand over social media that the press stop reporting the blundering incompetence of the SEA Games organizers, and to instead “unite” the country behind its athletes. It’s a legitimate enough wish, but keeping the citizenry ignorant of what’s happening has nothing to do with it.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said it all when it took exception to the press’, rather than the Phisgoc’s being blamed by the regime, its usual trolls, and its old media hacks for the further erosion of the country’s already damaged reputation worldwide.

The duty of journalists, said the NUJP, “has always been to report things as they are based on verifiable facts and not to pander to anyone’s perception of what is, or should be.

“It (is) ridiculously unacceptable when the officials responsible for the (SEA Games) disaster resort to bashing media… as if the reports on their shortcomings were to blame for the disaster. (Dictating) how the media should report the news has no place in a democracy.”

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) also denounced “remarks by Southeast Asian Games organizers blaming the media partly for the flurry of negative reports on logistical issues…

“Independent journalists report problems and issues imbued with public interest as they happen and become evident… We report defeats and victories, failures and triumphs.

“We specially take exception to insinuations by House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano… that there may have been attempt to bribe the media to malign the Philippines’ hosting of the Southeast Asian Games. Such sweeping accusations without a shred of evidence are totally unacceptable and tend to intimidate journalists from reporting irregularities objectively.”

What’s ironic is that despite what the bashers of media say, much of the press has actually taken the greatest pains to report even the attacks on itself, as well as Cayetano’s and his Phisgoc accomplices’ excuses for what is now likely to go down in the history of Philippine sports as the “2019 SEA Games mess.”

Quoting whatever the notorious, the famous, the powerful, the wealthy, or anyone with some kind of official title say is, in fact, the most common form that what’s known as “he-said-she-said” reporting takes in the Philippine press. It was very much in evidence in the reporting of the SEA Games gaffes and their aftermath. The result in this instance is the dominance in the media of the Cayetano-Phisgoc narrative, and hence, much of the public’s buying into it — thanks to the very same press community they’ve been accusing of negative, unpatriotic, and even malevolent reporting.

The practice doesn’t help make already confused and confusing events, issues, policies, and developments any clearer. It instead contributes to the misinformation and disinformation crisis that has constricted democratic discourse and made it dangerous and difficult among a citizenry that today needs it most.

Apparently not only must the public be media literate. Much of the press also have to re-examine themselves, and evaluate how they’ve been reporting that area of Philippine life that the Duterte regime has made even more problematic: politics and governance. Paraphrasing what Shakespeare’s three witches cackled at each other while stirring their own non-SEA Games cauldron of horrors, reviewing journalism practice and encouraging public understanding of the media are double the toil because it’s double the trouble.


Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).