USAID

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.

Disgusted with pols’ mansions? Take pix, send to this group

Disgusted with pols’ mansions? Take pix, send to this group
By Philip Tubeza
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Disgusted by a public official’s sprawling mansion or bulky SUV that you think is ill-gotten? Take a picture and send it to these guys.

Anticorruption activists Tuesday launched the Philippine Public Transparency Reporting Project (PPTRP) and its website, aiming to build from the grassroots “a constituency for change” to battle “endemic” graft and corruption.

The PPTRP website—www.transparencyreporting.net, subtitled “Pera Natin ’To (This is our Money)!”—will feature pictures of alleged ill-gotten wealth. Plans are underway to make the Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) of government officials available online.

The first target of this “shame” drive? Politicians who put their names and pictures on signs announcing public projects.

“We want to shame people, shame politicians,” said Briton Alan Davis, the director of the project which is funded by the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID).

“We would like to see an end to politicians putting their own names and photos on publicly funded projects. I think it’s morally wrong for people to promote themselves on the back of public money,” Davis said.

“It’s wrong. Maybe it’s even corrupt. You’re basically using public money to advertise your own personal private gain, which is to get votes for the next election. And that is the definition of corruption,” he said.

Davis said the group would write “all the politicians and all the presidential candidates” with the question, “Do you think this is morally acceptable or morally wrong?”

“And we will publish their replies,” he said.

Davis also said the media should stop reporting that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo visited “her” projects somewhere in the country.

“They’re not her projects. They don’t belong to her. They belong to the people. The media will have to stop calling programs as somebody’s projects. That’s what we don’t like—the personification of public money,” he said.

The PPTRP is a two-year anticorruption and transparency reporting project that will work closely with journalists, civil servants and activists, the academe, and citizens nationwide to improve “understanding, engagement and action on public accountability and governance.”

Davis said the PPTRP website would post the SALNs of government officials to spur ordinary citizens to conduct their own “lifestyle checks.”

“We will put all SALNs online so that they would be accessible to all. We promise not to comment on them. We simply want to put them online so that people can use [the information] themselves and do lifestyle checks,” he said, adding:

“We don’t use the website as a tool to accuse people because that’s not fair. We will look at everything on its merits. The key thing is to get people to understand that they’re being watched and being monitored.”

Davis, who is married to a Filipino, is the chief for Asia of the international nongovernment organization Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

He joined the NGO in 1994 after working as a journalist and news editor, reporting from Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar).

He has also worked for the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

Public involvement

According to Davis, ordinary citizens may go to the car park of a public office “and actually take pictures of cars they think” are beyond the financial reach of civil servants.

“If there’s a Mercedes and Toyota Land Cruisers, send us the pictures. We will go to the [Land Transportation Office] and find out who owns those cars,” Davis said.

“We want to get the public involved in the monitoring, in the naming and in the shaming,” he said.

With USAID support, the PPTRP website will provide information and education to the public to promote a deeper understanding and better monitoring of public finances.

Too technical

“In terms of budget transparency in the Philippines, we always hear about corruption in tax administration, unaccountable expenditures, lump-sum appropriations, and often, these problems are seen as too technical for civil society or ordinary citizens to be involved with,” said Maria Rendon, acting chief of USAID’s Office of Economic Development and Governance.

“The project intends to spread awareness of the present issues in public finance and other facets of government so that people will understand and participate in the constituency for change,” she said.

Rendon said budget issues were “often ignored, probably because the consequences seem to be intangible and detached from day-to-day lives.”

“But as our good colleague, Emily Boncodin, would say, public finances reflect the bottom line of government priorities,” Rendon said, referring to the recently deceased and much admired former budget secretary.

“They determine the number of school buildings to be constructed, the quality of rural roads, the quality of health care and even the efficiency of elections,” she said.

Twilight zone

Also present at the project launch held at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, was Solita Monsod, a former director of the National Economic and Development Authority who warned that the country was losing the war against corruption.

“The Philippines is in the twilight zone where laws, rules and regulations are ignored or broken, where lack of transparency is the rule rather than the exception,” Monsod said.

“On the macro level, we have been losing the battle on corruption or, at the least, we are not winning the battle as shown by indicators like the Global Corruption Barometer,” she said.

Monsod said it was “utter hogwash” that “corruption is endemic in the Philippines because we are a morally and culturally flawed people.”

“My counter-assertion is the plain and simple fact that the reason corruption is practiced so widely in this country is not because we are flawed but because we are rational. We engage in corrupt practice because it pays. The extra benefits far outweigh the extra costs to the practitioner,” she said.

Court of public opinion

Even the justices of the Supreme Court should make their SALNs public to improve transparency in government, Davis said.

If not, he said, the PPTRP would use “the court of public opinion” to “shame in a respectful way” the tribunal into agreeing to release the SALNs of its members.

“We can write to them. We’re going to publish our letter and … their reply. We’re going to say, ‘Why do you have that policy? Who decided that?’” Davis said.

He pointed out that the filing of the SALN was instituted so that government officials would “be accountable to the public.”

The 1987 Constitution mandates government officials to file, under oath, their SALNs. It adds that for the President, Vice President, the Cabinet, Congress, and the Supreme Court, their SALNs should be “disclosed to the public in a manner provided by law.”

Junk SC resolution

But in an en banc resolution on Sept. 22, 1992, the high court stopped the practice of releasing the justices’ SALNs to the public. It would later use this resolution to deny requests from the media for copies of the justices’ SALNs.

“If they refuse to send [their SALNs], we will use public shame. [We will] not necessarily file public cases because that goes to [court] and it could get lost for years and years. We’ll use the court of public opinion,” Davis said.

Monsod also called on the high court to junk its policy of keeping the SALNs of its members secret.

“That’s nonsense. The whole reason for [the SALN] is to make transparent their wealth. The Constitution calls for it,” Monsod said.