Thursday, August 9, 2012

Good and bad news

During his most recent state of the nation address (SONA), Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III rued the lack of enthusiasm in the local media in reporting on the progress of the Philippine economy. President Aquino said that commentators in the foreign media have been bedazzled, citing Bloomberg Business week’s “Keep an eye on the Philippines.” And according to Morgan Stanley’s Emerging Market Equities which Aquino quoted, “The Philippines is no longer a joke.”

Or perhaps, the joke is on us. Are the foreign media and foreign credit rating agencies better judges of the Philippines’ economic performance? It’s the local media who are reporting on the gloomy realities on the ground, and they should know better.

It’s also the local media who are directly in touch with people without jobs, with poor families struggling to put bread on the table or make both ends meet, with striking workers demanding higher wages, or with victims of extrajudicial killings and violation of political and civil rights wondering when they will see justice done. These are stark realities the media cannot ignore. It’s not the business of President Aquino to tell reporters to write only the good news. Besides, the present administration already has the yellow media and more than a handful of influential columnists in the country’s major newspapers who would write only good things about President Noynoy Aquino – members of the Philippine press who obviously are staunchly loyal to the administration, for better or worse.

President Noynoy Aquino aboard an army truck in Tunasan village, Muntinlupa
City on the way to visit with Typhoon Gener evacuees at the elementary school.
Aquino called the village folks as "gritty people" and in a "lively mood" which he
said made his burden lighter. With the President are his sister Kris Aquino, Risa
Hontiveros, DOTC Secretary Mar Roxas, Tesda Director General Joel Villanueva
and Customs chief Rufino Biazon. Click link below to view "Slideshow: Manila's
rains play cruel game,"  as compiled by ABS-CBN News,

Just two weeks after Aquino trumpeted his administration’s initiative to bring all anti-disaster initiatives inside one boat, which he called Project NOAH (apparently referring to the Great Flood in the Bible), Typhoon Gener struck Metro Manila and nearby provinces. Remember Aquino’s words during the SONA: “We no longer leave the evacuation of families to mere luck. We now have the technology to give fair warning to Filipinos in order to prepare for and avoid the worst.”

Instead of disaster relief agencies working with little coordination or cooperation, Aquino’s government has adopted a new culture – “‘bayanihan’ – a coming together for the sake of the people, this is what we call Convergence.” A new bureaucratic jargon of the Aquino administration, but not totally a novel concept.

But as Typhoon Gener savaged the country with continuous heavy rainfall after three straight days, the only thing that has surely converged is the sea and floodwaters, flooding Metro Manila and nearby provinces, a diluvian landscape as disaster officials have described.

But no worry, the yellow media reported that the flooding would not likely set back the country’s economic momentum, the kind of good news that is music to Aquino’s ears.

Good news reporting does not necessarily mean conveying the truth. In fact, the implication could be the contrary. A President who wants only to hear the good news is someone who is not interested in hearing the truth. What else could be the role of the press than to provide information that is based on the truth, not information the President would like to hear, only the news that is pleasing to his ears.

President Aquino, for example, has claimed that under his presidency, almost 3.1 million jobs were created, more than the estimated million new entrants to the job market every year. Thus, to the President’s mind, unemployment is on a steady decline: from 8 per cent in 2010 to 7.2 per cent in April 2011, and this year, it dropped further to 6.9 per cent. Certainly, this is good news to hear.

But what is the real story behind this so-called growth in employment? What the President really does not want us to read or hear is the deterioration in the quality of jobs. Full-time employment actually fell by 1.6 million but this was compensated for by a large 2.5 million increase in the number of part-time workers, which is what the President is really claiming as job growth during his two years in office. And we know what part-time employment is: these are jobs that are conventionally low-paying, insecure and without benefits. Part-time work now accounts for over four out of ten (43 per cent) jobs in the economy or 16.2 million out of 37.8 million employed.
People's SONA 2012. Illustration courtesy of Migrante International. Click link to view "People's Sona 2012."

To prove his job generation strategy, President Aquino points to the growth in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector. In 2000, only 5,000 people were employed in this industry. In 2011, the number of BPO workers jumped to 680,000, and the industry, according to the President, has contributed 11 billion dollars to the economy.

What are these BPO jobs? BPO is a growing industry in the Philippines. In 2011, the Philippines has the highest number of employees at call centres in the entire world. In the Philippines, call centres began as providers of business email response and managing services. The call centre sector comprises 80 per cent of the total BPO industry with 80 per cent of the call services provided for the U.S. market. Call centre jobs are such in high demand in the Philippines because of lower labour costs, available highly skilled and educated work force, and high proficiency in spoken English.

According to President Aquino, by 2016 when his term expires, the BPO sector will be bringing in 25 billion dollars and employing 1.3 million Filipinos. Furthermore, as the President said, “this does not include the estimated 3.2 million taxi drivers, baristas, corner stores, canteens, and many others that will benefit from the indirect jobs that the BPO industry will create.” Great news, indeed.

But what is wrong with this type of news?

These BPO jobs are not the ones that would help in building a genuine Filipino industry and developing domestic agriculture which are necessary if we need our economy to take off to the next level. It’s not just about generating jobs that provide foreigners cheap Filipino labour and natural resources. This is the main flaw in an economic plan that is fixated on overseas work, business process outsourcing, mining and low-value added electronics manufacturing.

Reporting only news that is pleasing to the ears, which is what President Aquino would like, is nothing but conveying untested or unverified information. The realities on the ground, no matter how unpleasant, need to be reported so we can test the information we read or hear through debate or argumentation. In this way, we would be able to understand what we know and what we still need to learn.

It is not sufficient to hear the official story from the government. We knew by experience from the martial law years under Ferdinand Marcos that it’s easy for the government to paint a rosy picture to cover up the country’s economic squalor. Imelda Marcos used to order her army of street cleaners during those years to build and whitewash all fences on the main highways to hide the ugliness of slums every time foreign dignitaries visited the country. How different is this from President Aquino’s whim to hear only the good news?

If we have to defend democracy as the most efficient and equitable form of government, then we need to expand the circle of debate as widely as possible and not only between kindred spirits. But to do this, we need all the information from every source. The foreign media may be unaware of what’s actually happening on the ground. If it’s the local media who can best convey the sufferings of the people on the ground, then this government should not silence them in articulating the view of the downtrodden.

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