The Election (circus) is in town

Supporters of PDP Laban candidate for President Rodrigo Duterte and Nationalista Party candidate for Vice President Alan Peter Cayetano await the arrival of the tandem at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Both were invited to CNN Philippines's Town Hall. Photo by KIM Quilinguing.
Supporters of PDP Laban candidate for President Rodrigo Duterte and Nationalista Party candidate for Vice President Alan Peter Cayetano await the arrival of the tandem at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Both were invited to CNN Philippines’s Town Hall. Photo by KIM Quilinguing.

Election season in the Philippines is often described by many to be akin to a circus. With all the colorful campaign paraphernalia, the flamboyant attire of candidates and supporters going about earning the confidence of voters, and all the lively exchanges between political bets on the media, one can easily gather an assessment of vibrant atmosphere the country and its people often find themselves every three years.

While it is difficult to find fault on which group is responsible for the sad state that politics, particularly the elections, have become in the country, how it is now perceived by the average Filipino, as being rowdy, full of hypocrisy, and even as a source of amusement, is shaped by how it is seen on television, reported on the radio and written on the newspapers.

Such is the state politics in the country has become in recent years, due much of course to the conduct of campaigns by various candidates and political groups, but also to the manner by which these sorties have been reported by members of the media.

Media coverage of the elections is largely dependent on the mere reporting of a candidate or political group’s campaign activities, what “catchy” soundbites candidates leave on the trail, and how these candidates react to accusations hurled against them by candidates of other parties or political groups.

It is important to note though that media coverage of the elections start way early than the acknowledged commencement of the election season. A year prior to the scheduled election, candidates are often already conducted clandestine campaign strategies through visibility and placement of advertisements in television and radio programs, as well as in the papers.

These cloak and dagger campaigns are usually conducted with the complicity of some media practitioners. And their involvement usually comes in the form of having these possible candidates appear quite often in their TV or radio program. More often than not, this practice is found in the regional areas, particular those parts of the country where radio remains the most accessible dominant media platform.

There have been cases where during election season, it is the radio station itself which compels its reporters, commentators and other employees to approach political candidates and groups to inquire whether they are interested in having their advertisements placed with the network or being made to guest on one of the radio station’s programs.

As the election season nears, those with ambitions tend to gravitate around members of the media, and in some cases, it would be the opposite: the media gravitating around those with political ambitions. And the constant interaction between these two groups, particularly in the regional setting, results to a peculiar interplay which often leads to increased publicity of the candidate as an outcome of some suspicious arrangement with the media personality, worker or network itself.

It cannot be denied that media workers are also citizens who will exercise their right to suffrage come Election Day, provided that their coverage of the day’s events will allow them to, but it would be important that these practitioners maintain a level of impartiality, particularly on their media programs or publications.

And along with maintaining a neutral stance with regards to preference of candidates, media practitioners should also aid in educating voters on the elections, the intricacies of government, the functions of public institutions, as well as the roles of public officials. It is important to note that while knowledge of these features of a supposed representative democracy, very little is done by the media, and even by educational institutions, in disseminating essential knowledge on these components of republican governance.

Since the start of the campaign season, the media has been closely watching the candidates in their campaign sorties and reporting every bit of the journeys of these aspirants to the different parts of the country. Yet, hardly do people know of the platform of governance being advocated by the different candidates. There is little to no available report or article on the stand of these candidates on different issues which confront Philippine society.

What is Rody Duterte’s Foreign Policy? What is Mar Roxas’ stand on the issue of Lumad Killings? What is Miriam Defensor Santiago’s stand on AFP Modernization? What is Jejomar Binay’s stand on the issue of corruption? What is Grace Poe’s stand on the West Philippine Sea?

While these questions may have been answered by some of the candidates as they are asked by members of the media or the audiences in the various fora they have attended or helped organized, they have offered no comprehensive plan by which these issues can be resolved. More often than not they give out some “juicy” soundbite and the media airs or quotes the soundbite without asking for more details.

It is in the lack of in-depth investigation by members of the media that there seems to be a need to know more of the candidates despite their almost omnipresence on television, radio, print and even in person. The media has failed in the previous months to compel these candidates to present their vision for the country. Visions by which we the electorate can judge them and compare them with each other, enabling us to make an informed and educated choice on who to vote for and why.

It is the primary duty of the media to inform and educate the public not only of day to day events, but more importantly, of the conduct of business in government institutions, including the character and beliefs of those who work or aspire to work for these public agencies of power.

The power to compel these public officials to fulfill their mandate to serve the people can only be invoked if the media, and by extension the nation, have prior to their assumption of power, required of these individuals their vision for the country. Without knowing what these personalities stand for and how they intend to govern the country, it would be difficult to have them account for their actions, except in cases of obvious wrongdoing in violation of the laws of the land.

There are still a few weeks to go before the day people will troop to the polling precincts. My hope as a citizen is that within those few weeks, the media will go beyond the mere reportage of the campaign stories of these candidates and instead go deeper on who they really are and how they intend to lead this country into a challenging and constantly changing world.

Should the media reclaim its responsibility of educating the people about the implications of the elections instead of merely reporting the obvious, Philippine society can slowly push back the curtains which have made our elections similar to those attractions found inside tents in a big seasonal circus.

This was a reaction paper written in June 2016 for a class on Political Economy in the Media under Professor Luis V. Teodoro.


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