By: Luis V. Teodoro
BERATING both her Senate colleagues and their House counterparts while explaining her vote for acquittal during the last day of the Corona impeachment trial, Miriam Defensor-Santiago pointed out what the trial’s being “political” meant. Santiago implied that her colleagues were interpreting the term in its narrow meaning of political partisanship, while what it meant was that the senators and congressmen should be aware of, and listening to, the will of their constituents.
But like Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Joker Arroyo, who also voted for acquittal, Santiago herself was hardly listening to her constituency, which for senators elected at large means the entire citizenry.
Between 70-73 percent of Filipinos, said the surveys, were for conviction. Santiago had a way out of the contradiction between her vote for acquittal and the survey results, however. She implied in the same tirade that the surveys, including one taken among University of the Philippines students by a group of public administration graduate students, were less than honest and were calculated to sway the impeachment court against Corona.
It’s a claim those who don’t find survey results to their liking often make. Survey results can be manipulated; the questions can be framed to elicit desired responses, and the survey population chosen for its perceived bias for or against a person or an issue.
These are possibilities, yes, but whether they do happen, and happen regularly, is difficult to prove. It is also unlikely, at least in the case of survey groups with relatively long histories. The long-term viability of survey groups depends largely on their reputations and track records. Against neither Pulse Asia nor Social Weather Stations (SWS), the two most well-known survey groups in the Philippines that surveyed citizen opinion on Corona and his trial, has there ever been any proof of manipulation over the last two decades (SWS is 27 years old). Their respective track records also speak for themselves, their findings on such questions as voter preferences being usually confirmed by the actual results of elections. It is therefore fairly safe to assume that the survey results on citizen preferences re the outcome of the impeachment trial were accurate.
But except for perfunctory reports that were mostly limited to print, the old media (print and broadcasting) almost pointedly ignored the survey results. The fear that they could be cited for contempt could explain the paucity of old media comment on the survey results, ironically despite their own practitioners’ frequent reference to the trial as a political and only quasi-judicial process. Public opinion as a factor in the senator-judges decision was therefore crucial to that process. It should also have been evident to the media from the frequent statements by Presiding Judge Juan Ponce Enrile of the Court’s commitment to liberality that any media organization’s being cited for contempt was unlikely.
The old media were also remiss at another level. The three leading networks did devote considerable air time including live coverage to the trial. To provide legal context and to interpret developments in the trial itself, they enlisted the help of legal experts and academics. But except for a few Man On The Street interviews which were limited to the interviewees’ merely declaring whether they were for or against Corona and without their being asked for the reasons behind their views, the voice of the citizenry was hardly in evidence.
There are literally hundreds of non-government organizations in the Philippines engaged in monitoring government for the sake of transparency and accountability. And yet only one or two of these organizations’ leaders or spokespersons, and only in very rare instances, were ever interviewed to provide the rest of the citizenry a sense of what their fellow Filipinos rather than the legal experts and the academics could be thinking.
The result was a knowledge gap as a result of the limited coverage of the trial by print and broadcasting. Those segments of the population that for various reasons were limited to print or broadcast as sources of information can’t be blamed if they thought the impeachment of Corona to be of no consequence, meaning or value to their concerns. By the second month, the trial’s supposed irrelevance was already a frequent complaint among common folk and the leaders and members of people’s organizations. The usual absence of context–the significance of the trial to Filipinos rather than the focus on legal complexities some networks were regaling their audiences with—that characterizes much of Philippine media coverage of even the most important events and issues was equally evident, resulting in much of the public’s dismissing the trial as a sometimes amusing, frequently boring, and regularly puzzling diversion.
It was in the new media where, despite the bad grammar and the name-calling to which too many social media users are prone, some sense of the significance of the trial to ordinary lives emerged. The veritable absence of gate-keeping over the Internet made for no holds barred discussions unrestricted by fears of being cited for contempt, thus enabling every citizen with Internet access, including those who had nothing to say, to say something. The result of this free-wheeling virtual anarchy was a sense among social media users of the relevance of the trial, among other reasons because both the most basic as well as the most complex issues were fair game for criticism and discussion. In the particular case of the Corona impeachment, old media timidity and the persistence of old habits were overwhelmed by new media daring.
Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he teaches journalism. He is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. He writes a weekly column for the BusinessWorld.