Korina Sanchez

A “Mediated” Catastrophe

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In the wake of the strongest storm on record to make landfall, Filipinos had found all telecommunications cut off and basic infrastructure levelled. No information from the affected regions was readily available in the immediate aftermath of typhoon Haiyan.

Then from satellites orbiting the earth and from previously stranded news crews on the ground in Leyte, first a trickle, then a deluge of reports came pouring in. The images they showed and the stories they told gave people from all over the nation and the world an overall picture of the gravity of the event that had just occurred. Scenes of utter devastation and loss were beamed straight into our living rooms.

From there the narrative evolved. The coverage initially focused on the impact of the storm on the people, their property and the place itself. Arriving at an accurate picture of the scale and severity of the damage was difficult at first. Estimates were compiled, reported, misreported, corrected, and updated.

First it was 1,200 dead, then it was scaled up to 10,000. Then it was adjusted back down to 2,300, before rising to 3,600 and then to 4,500. The rubberiness of these figures themselves proved how desperate the situation had become. Expressions of sympathy along with pledges of support began flooding in from all over the world. Social media started to buzz with the same. About 10 million have been directly affected by the storm. 

From there, the media trained its microphones and lenses at the response to the emergency by the state, international donor community and civil society, and on how adequate/poor, efficient/slow, effective/haphazard it was. Statements made by the president and other public and community leaders prior to, during and after the event were analysed, evaluated and subjected to commentary, with varying degrees of slant, depending on who was doing it.

By Day 5 criticism over the absence or slow rate of response began to build. CNN’s Anderson Cooper, a veteran anchor and host of the show AC360 himself became part of the story when he began to offer his own personal opinions regarding the government’s actions since the storm hit. Having just arrived “on the scene” in Tacloban, he wondered out loud where the resources of the state were being deployed if at all. From his vantage point, there did not seem to be a presence.

He of course was speaking as a field reporter, travelling on foot and surveying what was in his vicinity. He was lambasted by a local news anchor, Korina Sanchez, for providing inaccurate information. She had a personal interest as her husband is the head of the interior and local government department. Sec Mar Roxas later appeared on CNN with Andrew Stevens explaining the logistics of aid, defending the government’s position, providing a macro picture of what the government had done and was continuing to do across the central islands and hundreds of municipalities affected.

The contrasting positions of official government representatives who were dealing with the crisis from the war room (which took a non-journalist in the person of Solita Monsod to document), as opposed to news reporters who were sampling local issues using partial, anecdotal evidence was not appreciated by the public, at large. Reality was being mediated by camera crews who were capturing conditions in specific locations without necessarily contextualising them.

This mediation of reality could be distorted without that broader awareness of what was happening in other places and behind the scenes. Social media began to reflect and magnify this somewhat slanted view. Memes began to pop up and multiply. The most common was the “nobody is in charge” one, particularly as reports of looting, stampeding, and shooting began to float around. By “catastrophising” the situation, the flow of aid may have unintentionally been slowed, as one Time magazine journalist observed.

It swamped stories of resilience, communities coming together, people pitching in, and successful operations elsewhere. The big picture was unavailable, only momentary media clips that could fit into bite-sized reporting, useful to the 24/7 news cycle. Rumours over a possible “state of emergency” or “martial law” began to fill the airwaves heightening that sense of insecurity and utter chaos, without necessarily being representative of the true situation.

The officials who claimed that conditions were well under control like President Aquino did with Christiane Amanpour or UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos were branded as out of touch, aloof, uncaring. That is the other meme: the uncaring bureaucrat or arrogant, self-serving politician. The commentariat began to vilify them for their inaction, for failing to plan, control or respond quickly enough. They did so without taking into account the extreme nature of the event.

Compared to similar “Black Swans” that have occurred, like Hurricane Katrina, the Boxing Day tsunami, and the Haiti earthquake, the timeline of Typhoon Haiyan looked a lot similar. People are appalled by the seeming inaction, but they fail to take into account the length of time it takes to ship goods, materiel and forces into a devastated location. While media people can be airlifted in, the bulk of relief goods have to travel by sea or land. In an archipelagic region where ports and roads may have been severely impaired, it is certainly a massive challenge to get those stocks flowing.

For commercial media outlets who feel the pressure of competing for eyeballs, clicks and viewership, catastrophising the situation served their interests. As New York Magazine commented regarding CNN’s falling ratings during the coverage of the budget and Obamacare crisis in the US,

If CNN can’t win the ratings during a breaking crisis, it really is in trouble.

Of course that is not to say that some officials were not doing their jobs. Reports of relief workers prioritising their own kith and kin began to filter through. One news item talked about how relatives of survivors were being ferried in to provide direct assistance to loved ones. The state was being disparaged in social media for being weak and ineffective, so much so that it had to be bypassed.

On the other hand the vice president was receiving a fair deal of criticism for attaching his seal to relief goods. A photo of these items was being circulated by the “anti-epal” brigade whose meme is the basis for a campaign against any form of opportunistic patrimonialism by public officials during elections or times of crisis. As it turns out, there is some controversy over the date in which the actual images were taken, and the source of the relief goods.

Of course publicly elected officials will want to be seen lending support at a time like this, just as foreign superpowers seeking to influence cultural memes regarding their role in the world will use their military and aid agencies to do the same. They would be criticised by their constituents for not visibly doing anything. It is part of projecting their “smart” power. Altruistic motives mix with self-serving interests. It is just curious to see how one set of actions, or one form of “speech” gets privileged over another.

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The message being relayed by such memes is of a state unable to protect its own citizens within its borders, so much so that a foreign power has to swoop down and do what local authorities can’t. By elevating one form of aid and denigrating another, these memes undermine the legitimacy of local officials in the eyes of their citizens who will begin to wonder whether it is time for them to vote with their feet and leave their country for foreign soil.

In the final analysis, a sound policy response can only be developed on the basis of carefully considered information, not spin, nor sound-bites. But that is not all. Good policy is worthless if it does not have the support of a well-informed citizenry. The fact that reality gets distorted through the lens of the traditional media and magnified by online and social media makes effective policy and program implementation even more difficult since the very legitimacy of the state and of its agencies is questioned and undermined at every turn.

Eventually, the crises that we find unmanageable may in actual fact have been made unmanageable in our minds first. When that happens, it is no longer a natural catastrophe that we face, but a mediated one, artificially constructed, mindlessly adopted by us from the sources of our information that prey on our human frailties and biases.

Mindanao execs warn of May 10 special operations

Mindanao execs warn of May 10 special operations
By Aurea Calica
The Philippine Star

ROXAS CITY, Capiz , Philippines  – Liberal Party (LP) presidential candidate Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III disclosed yesterday that he had received information about “special operations” or cheating being planned by certain groups to manipulate the May 10 elections in Mindanao.

He said that local officials, including those not allied with the LP, have pledged not to participate in any plan to cheat or derail the elections in their jurisdictions.

Aquino said the special operations or cheating during elections had been known to be going on in the country but the problem was that nobody had ever been convicted of an election offense.

“Think of the transition from one administration to another as a sign of a mature democracy. But how come in every election we are like this? During my mother’s (former President Corazon Aquino) time, there was an orderly transition (to former President Fidel Ramos) but we are going back to where we used to be. There is talk of no-el (no elections), failure (of elections scenarios). Why are we stepping back instead of moving forward?” Aquino said.

President Arroyo was accused of cheating in the 2004 presidential race after the discovery of alleged wiretapped conversations she had with former elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, which became known as the “Hello, Garci” tapes.

Aquino said the “Hello, Garci” scandal has not been resolved, and if elected he would form a commission to investigate the 2004 poll scandal and other anomalies in which Mrs. Arroyo had been implicated.

He said that the bombings in Basilan last Tuesday might be a prelude to a disruption of the May 10 elections in Mindanao.

He said violent incidents would force the LP to double efforts to ensure that elections in the south would be honest, since there are widespread reports that poll fraud might occur in Mindanao.

He lamented that violence in Mindanao erupted when the Commission on Elections (Comelec) had not yet responded to their concerns regarding poll automation.

He said it would be difficult to speculate on what his rivals could do in Mindanao, especially if it would be placed under military control.

“We are still gathering data so we can arrive at a decision based on correct information. That’s our training, because when you jump to conclusions chances are you will make faulty plans,” Aquino said.

He said many previous violent incidents have remained unresolved, and he had earlier warned that the suspected Abu Sayyaf bandits involved in the latest Basilan bombings used C4 plastic explosives that are only available to the military.

“In mining and construction here, the use of C4 is rare unlike in the US. Where do you access the C4? Normally in the military, not in the PNP (Philippine National Police),” Aquino said.

“Where did the C4 come from? The current administration never answers. Do we really have tight control over explosives?” he said.

LP’s Muslim senatorial candidate Yasmin Lao called for sobriety amidst the worsening breakdown of peace and order in Mindanao.

She said that the renewed attacks in Basilan could be part of a sinister plot to sabotage the May 10 elections in the region.

Lao condemned the series of attacks on a Roman Catholic church, a school grandstand and three other public places in Isabela City in Basilan as un-Islamic and urged the police to work double time to arrest the attackers and ensure the safety of the public.

She said the bombings could be part of an organized plot to derail the elections.

Chaos

Administration Sen. Edgardo Angara said there is a 70 percent chance that elections would fail next month, which could plunge the country into chaos.

Angara stressed that there is a great probability of a failure of elections, given the admission by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) that there is a 30 to 40 percent chance they would revert to manual elections and the growing percentage of those who may be disenfranchised or fail to cast their votes.

Filipinos are preparing for a historic election in which they will vote using machines for the first time, but there are rising fears the experiment could fail and trigger deep political chaos.

More than 82,000 automated machines will be used in the elections, with results expected to be known in just two days instead of several weeks under the former hand-counted manual system.

But electricity supply problems, data transmission complications, the reliability of the machines themselves and the potential for the system to be manipulated could lead to a failure of elections, analysts said.

“There are a lot of problems and vulnerabilities in the system that have not been checked, and this could lead to a failure,” Bobby Tuazon, policy studies director at the Center for People Empowerment and Governance, told AFP.

“These machines have not been subjected to rigid stress tests in actual conditions,” said Tuazon, whose group is an independent poll watchdog that has closely studied the automation process.

The breakdown of two machines in Hong Kong when voting for overseas-based Filipinos got underway on the weekend only heightened the concerns.

The automated polls are being introduced to reduce the risk of cheating, which has plagued Philippine elections in the past, and to make the process of counting 50 million votes more reliable and efficient.

But the Comelec has even admitted there is a chance 30 percent of the machines, provided by a Dutch-Filipino consortium in a P7.2-billion- ($161-million) deal, could fail.

Noynoy disputes Villar’s claim

Meanwhile, Aquino also disputed the claim of main rival Sen. Manuel Villar of the Nacionalista Party that he was the real ally of President Arroyo.

Aquino said as far as he was concerned, the LP did not accept all defectors from the administration party Lakas-Kampi-CMD because of certain qualifications and standards that the LP wants its members to adapt.

Aquino explained that Albay Gov. Joey Salceda, a senior economic adviser of Mrs. Arroyo, was accepted to the LP because he is independent-minded.

He said the NP, however, had accepted Lakas defectors that LP rejected, which proved that Villar’s party lacked principles.

Aquino said there would be other defectors from other major parties that would join LP.

He said the LP was making all those who wanted to join them agree to certain terms, especially on the kind of governance they would like to have.

Aquino said Salceda would take care of the LP’s campaign in Bicol and that he would also consider the Albay governor to be one of his advisers.

Aquino and Roxas met yesterday with Sagay City Mayor Alfredo Maranon of the Nationalist People’s Coalition.

The LP bets endorsed the bid for Negros Occidental governor of Maranon who had not yet endorsed any presidential candidate.

LP leaders assailed the continuous black propaganda being conducted by NP and Nationalist People’s Coalition vice presidential candidate Sen. Loren Legarda against Roxas.

The LP pointed out that Legarda was the source of the revived allegations against Roxas’ wife, broadcast journalist Korina Sanchez, the attacks against the Cheaper Medicine Law and the land case involving the Aranetas now pending before the Supreme Court.

Roxas lamented that his wife, who had decided to work on the sidelines, had been dragged into the mudslinging. With Jose Rodel Clapano, Antonieta Lopez, Manny Galvez