Andanar’s plans for the PCO

Philippine presidents after Ferdinand Marcos had one thing in common—a staid, predictable, and publicly distrusted press office which dished out news bulletins deliberately designed to put the president in good light regarding whatever he did, and sometimes, particularly during some embarrassing occasions, whatever he did not do.  Political necessity required that the cosmetic job be extended to the members of the president’s cabinet whenever they needed to be in the news, especially on television.        

More often than not, the work everybody in the president’s press office had to do was already cut out for them.  Positive news was OK for broadcast on the government-owned radio and television stations.  On the other hand, negative news was diluted or censored, or in extreme cases, ignored outright by the gatekeepers of the president’s press office.

Because the president’s press office hardly conceals its main goal of promoting the good image of the president in the news media, people who know better consider the government-owned radio and television stations more as state propaganda outlets and defenders of the administration, rather than as credible sources of news.  Consequently, they do not bother tuning in to the government-owned radio and television stations for news and related information.  For that purpose, they rely on the private broadcast media, which they perceive as credible news sources.

Evidently, the government-owned broadcast media suffer from a credibility problem.  This credibility problem, in turn, is the main reason why past presidents—from the disappointing Corazon Aquino to her even more disappointing son Benigno III—never bothered to exert any serious effort towards improving the credibility of the state-owned PTV Channel 4, and Radyo ng Bayan, its radio component.

In contrast, the set up of President Rodrigo Duterte’s press office is entirely different on account of the changes he made in the stagnant bureaucracy characterizing the old political dispensations.

During the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, the dissemination of news from Malacañang was done in a tedious and protracted manner typical of any government agency.  This meant that news stories about Aquino emanating from the presidential palace had to be polished by his propagandists before they are disseminated.  The news stories were often too polished that they were obviously too good to be true. 

President Duterte inherited that set-up when he assumed office last year.  Weeks into his administration, Duterte realized that the responsibilities of his key people in his press office overlapped, and the bureaucracy itself was making the press office look inefficient and disorganized.  His first spokesman even had problems with the media.      

To resolve that mess, President Duterte consolidated all news dissemination in one body, with responsibilities clearly delineated.  That agency is the current Presidential Communications Office (PCO) headed by Secretary Martin Andanar.

As currently set up, the PCO is expected to disseminate announcements from Malacañang with dispatch and, when necessary, clarifications and corrections.  Andanar will manage the operations of the agency and its subsidiaries, while Undersecretary Ernesto Abella takes on the responsibility of presidential spokesman.  With office operations and news dissemination under one integrated agency, the PCO should not have any difficulty in conveying to the people in clear and categorical language President Duterte’s plans and ideas. 

Although Secretary Andanar was President Duterte’s media man right from the start of his term, Andanar does not have the trappings of a political appointee similar to erstwhile Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. Andanar is an experienced, professional broadcaster from a private broadcast media establishment before he joined the Duterte administration. At about 42 years old, Andanar has the energy and enthusiasm needed from somebody who oversees and maintains the communication line between the government and the people.  

Under Andanar, the PCO drafted President Duterte’s Executive Order No. 1 which  guarantees public access to information of public concern from all levels of the executive department.  Even if the latest rulings of the Supreme Court already require transparency in government records and information, this move on the part of Duterte and the PCO was a breakthrough because the right of public access enshrined in the Constitution has been given more force by way of executive fiat.

Duterte also credits the PCO for its role in the creation of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security. This group has been assigned to protect media personnel from violence and intimidation.  It is welcome move, no doubt, in the wake of the Ampatuan incident years ago, where numerous journalists covering a story in Mindanao were summarily executed, purportedly by a local political dynasty.  Hopefully, this task force will go beyond mere press statements.

So far, Andanar seems to be taking his responsibilities as PCO chief seriously.  Under his watch, PTV 4 has nearly tripled its transmitter strength, and its programs are now coordinated with the social media.   

Andanar has announced his plan to extend PTV 4’s reach to cover Jolo, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.  He also intends to revitalize the Philippine News Agency by giving it its own sub-channel under the PTV 4 digital platform. 

If these plans succeed, the volume of public exposure President Duterte may avail of will be unprecedented. 

Admittedly, there is much to be desired about the credibility quotient of PTV 4 and Radyo ng Bayan precisely because they are owned and operated by the government.  Any measure designed to solve that credibility problem will require undoing decades of bureaucratic practices, prejudices, and habits all geared towards retouching the news so as to put the president and the cabinet in a good light.  Solving that problem will definitely require a lot of painstaking effort from Andanar. 

That difficult objective, though, is not impossible.  Andanar has correctly set his eyes on the British Broadcasting Corporation as a model. The BBC is a state-owned facility, but its charter requires it to be fiercely independent of the government.  Because the BBC lives up to that challenge, it enjoys a high level of credibility and public acceptance in the United Kingdom.

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