Making haste slowly

JONATHAN CELLONA/PPA POOL

As his 100th day in office on Oct. 8 approached, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. said in a speech on Oct. 5 that he has put in place a “functional government.”

He bragged that he has secured trade, investments and other agreements with Indonesia and Singapore in the course of his state visits to both countries, and that at the United Nations General Assembly where he spoke on Sept. 20 (Sept. 21st in the Philippines), he had shown that “the Philippines is standing on its feet” and that his administration is in the process of realizing Filipino “dreams and aspirations.”

Mr. Marcos also claimed that he has managed to recruit “the best and the brightest” officials to his administration, particularly for the economic and development cluster of the Cabinet.

“We are grateful for their talent,” he said, and “to have them in place gives us a distinct advantage as we try to transform our economy for (sic) the next two years.”

Implicit in these statements is Mr. Marcos’ supposed commitment to the making of a better Philippines. But he made the “functional government” boast in the wake of three key resignations — those of his Chief of Staff, his Press Secretary, and his chosen Chair of the Commission on Audit (CoA) — and his appointment of two Commissioners, one of them as Chair, to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

One could say that neither the resignations nor the latter appointments are indicative of any serious missteps and due only to Mr. Marcos’ still feeling his way through the bureaucratic maze. But it could also be argued that he was also as hasty in his earlier choices, such as his designation of Vice-President Sara Duterte, who has no background as an educator, as head of the Department of Education (DepEd).

His CHR appointments could be in the same category of recklessness — or politics. Neither of those appointees has any background in human rights work, hence the possibility of their eventually resigning — or being forced to do so. On the other hand, in contrast to the speed with which he named the three resigned officials is his failure to name a Secretary of the Department of Health (DoH), even as he remains his own Secretary of Agriculture. Mr. Marcos is making haste — slowly.

Like the national budget, appointments to key government posts are suggestive of the policies an administration intends to pursue as well as of its priorities. Whether the second Marcos regime will introduce new policies to replace those of the Duterte regime, or at least modify them enough to mitigate their failures and stop the abuses they encouraged, is necessarily of interest to, among others, those Filipinos who took to heart Mr. Marcos’ campaign promises to unify the country and hasten its recovery from the incompetence that exacerbated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the citizenry.

Among the first indicators if there will be policy changes or not are thus who are appointed to which posts, what their qualifications and backgrounds are, and what they intend to do once in office.

The now resigned Press Secretary was the only one of Mr. Marcos’ first appointees to outline her plans. Unfortunately, those plans were not indicative of any departure from the policies of the Duterte regime. Her declared intentions provoked suspicions that the past regime’s policy of limiting access to the Office of the President to “friendly” media organizations and their reporters would continue.

Those plans did not materialize, but depending on who will replace her could still be implemented. If that happens, it would continue to adversely affect the capacity of the independent press to provide their audiences the information about what government and its officials are doing, to which the people have a right.

Both press freedom and the people’s right to know are among the casualties of the killing of journalists, about which the Oct. 3 shooting of Las Piñas, Metro Manila broadcaster Percy Lapid (Percival Mabasa) reminded the country. In a demonstration of the Marcos administration’s seeming concern over the targeting of journalists by those individuals in power who resent their exposing their wrongdoing or just their reporting the truth, a number of government officials have condemned it while Mr. Marcos himself has declared that his administration will protect the rights of journalists.

Both seemed to depart from the indifference to, and even approval of, the killing of journalists by the past regime, during the six years of which 23 more journalists were added to the then 152 killed for their work since 1986, for a total of 175 when Mr. Marcos assumed the Presidency on June 30. But the killing of Lapid is already the second under the Marcos Jr. regime, after a Negros Oriental broadcaster was killed on Sept. 18. The current total since 1986 is 177, with less than 20 cases resolved.

As seemingly positive as the current regime’s response to the Lapid killing has been, it still has to be validated by more specific acts and policy declarations that could help stop the killings. To achieve that aim, the prosecution of the killers and the masterminds behind them is imperative.

The “Culture of Impunity” — the exemption from prosecution and punishment of wrong-doers — is what has encouraged the killing of journalists. The prosecution of the killers and the brains behind them should stop, or at least reduce the number of journalists’ being killed annually in this country, which international press freedom watch groups have described as “the most dangerous” and “the most murderous” place in the world in which to practice journalism.

Whether the Marcos administration’s response will go beyond mere words is what the independent press, media advocacy groups, journalists’ unions, and free expression defenders and advocates should be monitoring in the coming weeks and months of the Marcos watch.

But as urgent as the need to uphold and defend press freedom and the people’s right to know is, there are other issues that should be of immediate concern to government.

Among them is who (and when) Mr. Marcos will appoint to the DoH in the context of the multiplying public health issues that have added to Filipino woes over inflation, unemployment, and the COVID-19 contagion. Still under an officer-in-charge who cannot initiate new policies and who is mandated to continue the policies of the previous Secretary, the DoH is the lead agency in the drive to contain the infection, which, after all, was one of Mr. Marcos’ promises during his campaign for the Presidency.

But equally as urgent is his halting the increase in the numbers of the unemployed (now 2.68 million), and the surge in the inflation rate (6.3% in August) that in combination are making both ends meet in these isles more and more difficult if not impossible for the impoverished millions.

As global warming intensifies, there is also the rising cost in lives, crops, and infrastructure of the powerful typhoons that every year strike the Philippines, from one of which, super typhoon Karding, 46,000 men, women, and children are still in makeshift evacuation centers.

The problems that continue to haunt these isles as Mr. Marcos marked his 100th day in office should have convinced him by now that being President is a full-time responsibility incompatible with partying and jet-setting. The Philippines is in one of the most acute stages of the crisis that has long afflicted it. Leaving the country just to watch the Formula 1 Grand Prix championships in Singapore at taxpayer expense did not help alleviate it.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

www.luisteodoro.com