WHEN the then-President-elect Rodrigo Duterte was doing those two-hour conversations with the press, informal and freewheeling, no filter and no holds barred, he gave them news for days. All media needed to do was latch onto the more controversial statements, the jokes and retorts, toward ensured hits and shares and likes on their website and social media accounts.
They could also milk these bits and soundbites all it was worth, where one story could yield a good number of articles: from breaking news to longer form ones, in English and then in Tagalog, and then news articles with video clips. They could go on and use it for an op-ed article, or find a “political analyst”—the job de rigueur!—and create an article out of that as well.
Add to that the number of news articles they can (re-)create for primetime, late night, and early morning news. It was like a gift that kept on giving.
Until the President decided he wouldn’t give media anything. And here we are.
If Inauguration Day was any indication, it didn’t seem like a big deal that mainstream media was not given its own space in Rizal Hall, neither did it matter that we were all seeing the same footage on every network.
In fact it was great that there were no ambush interviews of guests, no pointless questions like “how does it feel?” and “what do you expect to hear?” and then afterward “was it what you expected?” It was refreshing that the news did not—could not—carry stories about the Filipiniana fashion of attendees, or the who’s who among the invitees. There were no scoops to be had, no getting a “better” story versus the other network.
From the inauguration, the President met with the Diplomatic Corps, sat down with militants brought to Malacañang from the rally in Mendiola, and had his first Cabinet Meeting—the first half of which was aired live, too. Later in the evening he had dinner with a community in Tondo, Manila. We saw these activities live on PTV 4 or in real time on official social media accounts.
It sure was rough around the edges, but not bad at all for Day One.
The press and the President
But this is not what mainstream media is used to.
A pooled editorial that was signed by various mainstream newspapers and media organizations was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 29. It sounded conciliatory, admitting to corruption in the media and speaking of it as borne of a systemic dysfunction that needed to be stopped at the source. A veteran journalist has been less conciliatory, asserting that disallowing even the Malacañang press corps from covering the inauguration is “tantamount to prior restraint to a free press” (Inquirer.net, 1 July).
Many have pointed out (threatened and warned?) that this kind of setup with the media will only push media to come up with other stories, and the President just might regret that. Even more people have said that this is like Marcos-era repression of press freedom, where only press releases would be had from the Palace, the better to fashion the image of the President.
Yet one wonders: if censorship is the point, then I would’ve ordered the cameramen at the inauguration to make sure they do not show the Marcos siblings in the audience. I would’ve controlled the images that could be posted on the family members’ social media accounts. I would’ve made sure it was impossible to get those soundbites from the Duterte siblings after the inauguration. Unsurprisingly, the question asked of Baste was: “Anong pakiramdam?” To which he replied, “Pareho lang.”
The threat that the media will find other stories given this no-presscon, no-interview policy, just might work to the public’s advantage.
Because there are many things the media could be focusing on at this point, even just given what we caught of the first Cabinet Meeting. We could start talking about disaster risk reduction and finally reckon with the tragedy that was Typhoon Haiyan, with real numbers of deaths, a real assessment of what went wrong. We could look into climate change, which the President himself mentions as a critical problem. We could understand better why he wants to send the Health Secretary to Cuba. We could get into the mining question, and not just believe what the new DENR Secretary and what the mining companies are saying—there’s the academe and those who work in the field, who would have a different, more practical take on the mining question. I would’ve loved to hear about how the DSWD prepared for the Tondo solidarity dinner on Inauguration Day, and what that meant for the urban poor of Manila, given a President from Davao.
But mainstream media does not seem to be interested in doing these stories, and one wonders why.
Instead, what we got on Inauguration Day was coverage of VP Leni Robredo’s inauguration and thanksgiving concert, complete with who wore what, who was there, and who just arrived. What we got was coverage of citizen Noynoy Aquino going home to Times Street, with Kris Aquino stories to boot. What we heard was the voice of veteran media man Vergel Santos talking about how the President seemed to have multiple personalities, because we were seeing a version of him at the inauguration that was different from the man during the campaign, putting into question the shift in decorum.
If I were the President, I’d refuse to sit down with this media, too.