If President Duterte can tag Iloilo City as the most “shabulized” city in the Philippines (suggesting widespread drug usage), I believe I breach no canon of journalism if I write here that the administration’s handling of the news on the ongoing war on drugs is a ‘shambolic’ mess.
You won’t find “shabulized” in any English dictionary, but “shambolic” is a real word in the language.
The Oxford dictionary says it’s informal, British English. The adjective means “chaotic, disorganized, or mismanaged.”
Oxford traces its origin and usage to the 1970s as a derivative from the word “shambles,” which means a place or condition of great disorder.
Signs of confusing mess
No other word than “shambolic” is more fitting to describe the state of government communications in the drug war today.
The news and statements are coming from everywhere. When President Duterte and PNP chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa are not the ones talking, others in high positions in government are offering their two cents and muddling the situation. No one is taking the time to clarify the big picture for the public.
Among the telltale signs of a shambolic mess are:
1. Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia has claimed that the killings in the drug war are “a necessary evil,” because they will bring about peace and order, which in turn, will lure investments into the country.
2. Presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo issued a verbal invitation to UN human rights rapporteurs to “come over and see for themselves the real situation” in the country’s drug war.
When the UN officials tweeted their acceptance of Panelo’s invitation, they were refused entry into the country, on the grounds that they would be interfering in Philippine internal affairs.
3. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella has issued a statement clarifying that the government did not invite the UN rights experts to probe the killings of drug suspects in the drug war.
4. Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. on Monday blamed the media for highlighting President Rodrigo Duterte’s scathing remarks against the United Nations on Sunday. He claimed that the Chief executive’s statements were taken out of context. The media should have given President Duterte some latitude because he was tired.
5. Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said he does not know whether President Duterte was serious or not in his threat to take the Philippines out of the UN.
What triggered the rigmarole were the statements of President Duterte at a nationally televised news conference on early Sunday morning, August 21. At the press conference, the President clearly threatened to withdraw Philippine membership from the UN and even added that he might invite other countries, including China and African nations, to form a new international organization.
UN Special Rapporteurs Agnes Callamard and Dainius Puras last week called on Duterte to stop the killings of persons accused of drug involvement and for the Philippine government to observe due process.
Both Duterte and Yasay said the UN rapporteurs broke protocol in criticizing the government’s domestic policies.
Palace communications not organized
The situation is one big, confusing mess, because Malacanang is not properly organized for the work of managing and directing administration communications.
At the transition, President Duterte made a conscious choice to appoint a presidential spokesman, and dispense with the services of a full-time press secretary.
The lack of a press secretary leaves a big hole in the essential work of managing the message for the presidency. This is not compensated for by the appointment of a communications secretary in Martin Andanar, because these are essentially two different functions and responsibilities.
For the sake of clarity, I will use as an example the practice in the White House and the US presidency.
In the US system, there are two White House staff units that deal most directly with the media and communications planning:
1. First, the White House Press Office, which is headed by the press secretary.
2. Second, the Office of Communications, which is headed by the communications director.
The press secretary is the most important person in the executive branch for the president’s day-to-day contact with the presidential media (media covering the president). The press secretary provides daily briefings, routing information on executive branch appointments and resignations, presidential actions and policies, and on the president’s schedule.
The press secretary can perform well only if granted continuous access to, and the confidence of, the president, so journalists may assume that the news comes directly from the chief executive.
The White House office of communications was created by Richard Nixon in 1969. Its functions are quite different from the press office.
As originally conceived, the communications office had four primary goals: (1) long-range communications planning; (2) the coordination of news from the many agencies and departments of the executive branch; (3) outreach to local media; and (4) oversight of presidential surrogates.
The authors of The Politics of the Presidency, Joseph A. Pika and John Anthony Maltese write of the two offices: “The press office is largely reactive; it responds to the questions and needs of the White House press corps. The office of communications is primarily proactive; it is responsible for setting the public agenda and making sure that all the players of the presidential team adhere to that agenda.”
Turning to our own Philippine system, Malacañang communications has not been professionally organized since the time of President Marcos, when there was briefly a full department of public information and a full–time information secretary in Francisco ‘Kit’ Tatad.
Under President Benigno BS Aquino 3rd, they tried some funny things besides increasing the communications budget to the billions. They created the imposing post of presidential messaging secretary, and then created the presidential communications office. This went nowhere, because the only thing Aquino was interested in was propping up his popularity rating and discrediting his enemies and rivals.
No substitute for private media
The setup under President Duterte has not worked out well, because the new administration began its work, thinking that he could dispense with private media altogether, and that he could create his own government media to serve as the important link between the President and the people.
Duterte has come to realize that there is no effective substitute for private media, unless he is prepared to copy what the Soviet Union vainly tried to do (Pravda, etc.) He can dream of creating his own BBC like that of the UK, but BBC is effective because it functions independently from the government of the day.
Malacañang communications will improve dramatically if the system is redesigned, and if existing officials are given clear job descriptions and tasks to fulfill.
To some extent, President Duterte has tried to be his own press secretary; he wings his way as he goes along, dispensing clever remarks as he pleases.
It seems clever and bright when President Duterte says, “There is no due process in my mouth,” in contrast to due process as dispensed by the courts. But once you sit down to see whether this has substance, you discover that it is all air and humbug.
Due process is a high standard to meet. Killing suspects is much quicker and easier.