Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Manipulating public opinion

For the misled and deceived public, including those in supposedly intelligent discussion forums in social media, the word “manipulation” often has pejorative connotations, implying unfair or deceptive strategies. But the Webster Dictionary defines it more broadly as an act of change by artful or unfair means to serve one’s purpose. Manipulation therefore may be either artful or deceptive. If it is artful, people may show admiration; if it is deceptive, the reaction may be outrage.
When public opinion is manipulated by agents of the government and its friends in the media to deflect criticism of its policies or performance or for some malicious purpose like demonizing a sitting vice-president who’s seen as an unworthy successor to the incumbent president, the absence of public outrage is very disconcerting. Major newspapers and television networks carry in their daily reportage unfounded allegations of corruption against the vice president. Even the social media like Facebook and Twitter are replete with opinions or messages bordering on libel that assail the integrity of the vice president and his family for unexplained wealth and their political dynasty.
The manipulation of public opinion against the vice president is in fact distasteful and not very artful, although it creates the desired result of making him look guilty. It is clearly deceptive because the obvious purpose is to character-assassinate the vice president at this early stage. If successful, the vice president would be seriously handicapped in explaining his side before he even declares his official candidacy for the presidency.
Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay
But the troublesome question is where the public outrage is. As usual, there is no conviction or finding of culpability, yet the public is being rushed to hang the vice president on the cross.
Spearheading the manipulation of public opinion against the vice president are two senators with similar dubious political records, Senators Antonio Trillanes and Alan Cayetano. Trillanes is a former navy officer and perennial coup d’état instigator who served more than seven years in prison for inciting rebellion against a duly elected government. He was elected while in prison and was officially pardoned by the current president so he could serve his term in the Senate.
Cayetano is a scion of a prominent political family. His wife is mayor of the city of Taguig and a former congresswoman, his older sister is also an incumbent senator, a younger brother is a congressman, and another brother is a former councillor of Muntinlupa. Allegations of corruption hound Senator Cayetano regarding pork barrel funds he received from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), and his wife, for alleged overpricing in the purchase of multi-cabs for the city of Taguig.
This is like mud wrestling. Regardless of who wins, all are covered with muck.
Both senators have also made known their intention to run for the office of the President after President Noynoy Aquino steps down in 2016. The curious thing is how the public is being misled to believe that the vice president is a crook and the two senators are not. There are also reports that a powerful bloc supporting Aquino is responsible for the attacks against the vice president so that their own presidential bets will not be hamstrung by Jojo Binay’s presidential ambition.
Vice President Jojo Binay is not even the president; yet, he is now at the vortex of a political tsunami. President Aquino must be enjoying the political mudslinging in Congress and the ensuing publicity in newspapers and social media drama because they deflect all criticisms against his failings and shortcomings.
For instance, as the country suffers from continuing power outages and snail-paced traffic on busy thoroughfares, all President Aquino could do was to ask for more understanding and patience from all affected businesses and frustrated commuters. Aquino has even blamed (again!) his predecessor, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, for the problems concerning the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) and the Light Rail Transit (LRT). It’s estimated that the traffic gridlock alone is costing the Philippines close to P2.4 billion a day, which will grow to P6 billion a day in 2030.
Meanwhile, President Aquino is reportedly planning to ask Congress to grant him emergency powers to deal with the country’s looming power crisis. Here is one clear example of how the Aquino administration is trying to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision to limit the executive’s budgetary and spending powers without congressional authorization by striking down the PDAF and DAP. Malice is evident in President Aquino’s ploy to use emergency powers so he could divert billons from the Malampaya Fund to the Liberal Party 2016 campaign chest. Since the Malampaya funds are disbursed at the sole discretion of the President, anything goes as far as where he or Budget Secretary Florencio Abad wants these funds to go. The Malampaya Fund could be the largest pork barrel at the disposal of the President, and it has not been investigated or audited because the fund is not subject to congressional oversight.
The President’s much-ballyhooed Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, a conditional cash transfer program aimed at eradicating extreme poverty in the Philippines by investing in health and education, is now considered by many as a failed social welfare dole-out. Patterned after the success of similar programs in Mexico and Brazil, the Philippine version is turning out more and more poor participants in the program. This prompted one member of Congress to criticize it as an impetus for poverty, instead of a solution.
Beyond just being a dole-out which was not the actual aim of the program, the government’s conditional cash transfer program has also become a veritable cash cow for corruption. It was reported that over P5 billion in conditional cash transfer (CCT) funds that were coursed through the Philippine Postal Corp. (Philpost) went missing and never reached the program’s intended beneficiaries. The irony of it all is this government-borrowed money, sanctioned by the International Monetary Fund, has been hijacked by corrupt government officials instead of being spent for the alleviation of poverty.
The President’s illegal Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) is yet to be fully accounted for. Considered as the President’s pork barrel, the DAP benefited lawmakers who were President Aquino’s party mates in the ruling Liberal Party. Senator Franklin Drilon, the sitting Senate President and a close ally of the President, is reported to have received P1 billion, the biggest allocation out of the total P10.08 billion in DAP.
Of the P1 billion DAP, Drilon got P450 million allocation for Jalaur Dam project, P150 million for the Iloilo River Development Program and P100 million for Iloilo Convention Center, all located in Drilon’s home province of Iloilo. Drilon’s unimaginable biggest share of the DAP could be one reason why Budget Secretary Abad is having problems releasing the list of lawmakers who received DAP funding.
Now, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago wants the Senate to look into allegations of corruption in the construction of the Iloilo Convention Center reportedly funded through Senator Drilon’s pork barrel funds. Santiago wants Hillmarc’s Construction Corp., the contractor for the construction of the Iloilo Convention Center be investigated. This is the same contractor of the allegedly overpriced Makati City Hall Building 2, which is currently under investigation by the Senate blue ribbon subcommittee.
Artist's perpective of how Iloilo Convention Center would look like when
completed. The structure is a pet project of Senate President Franklin Drilon
and partly funded from DAP funds. Photo courtesy of Iloilo Business Park.
Senator Santiago is said to be interested to know how Hillmarc’s has cornered super-lucrative public works contracts. The 11-storey Makati City office and parking building is the subject of a plunder complaint against Vice President Jejomar Binay, his son Makati Mayor Junjun Binay, and several other Makati government officials. The Iloilo Convention Center, a pet project of Senator Drilon funded partly from his P200-million allocation from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) in 2012 and P100 million from the DAP in 2013, is also said to be overpriced by P531 million.
In the past, Hilmarc’s has constructed several other government buildings which include the city halls of Bacolod and Calamba, the House of Representatives Annex Building, the Sandiganbayan Centennial Building, the Quezon City Museum, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas buildings in Naga City and Negros Oriental. The inference here is that the bidding process might have been rigged in favour of Hillmarc’s, yet the government’s role and Senator Drilon’s personal interest and involvement are being downplayed as if the awarding process was corruption-free.
If the so-called accomplishments of President Noynoy Aquino are subjected to a rigid litmus test, it would show that he had come up short. But Aquino’s spinmeisters are clever to stay on the message—that their crafted message is the only message the established media must cover. Thus, hardly does this President own up to his accountability and the public remains ever loyal to him.
I am not an apologist for Vice President Binay. The only connection we had was the one-time experience of marching together during the anti-Marcos demonstrations in Manila when he was a MABINI lawyer advocating for the civil rights of protesters. I don’t have any grudge against Senator Drilon but I have known him well as a pro-management lawyer in the service of multinational companies during my work in labour relations in the Philippines.
In any case, both Binay and Drilon should come up clean. Admittedly, they would not take accountability for their own acts of corruption, if any. Senators Trillanes and Cayetano should also consider ending their charade in Congress, for it makes them look less and less respectable and worthy to even be mentioned as presidential aspirants.
Since time is running short, it is about time for President Aquino to face up to the facts of his administration. That there are many shortcomings which he can no longer hide and cover up with presidential crafted talk. That his so-called singular achievement of detaining corrupt government officials still falls short of his promise of “daang matuwid” unless he is able to convict them for corruption and plunder.
Left to their own devices, the public will continue to be disinclined of suspicious political rhetoric. To recognize that deceptive and misleading political communication is being used to manipulate public opinion is another thornier issue because even the supposedly intelligent among us have become either a willing herd or pack of innocent voices of the government’s official line.

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