Bong Go regularly given airtime in state media broadcasts on coronavirus

Pia Ranada

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Bong Go regularly given airtime in state media broadcasts on coronavirus
The longtime Duterte aide, criticized for being 'epal,' is featured in almost every episode of Laging Handa PH, a public briefing supposed to be dedicated to COVID-19

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – At a time when government communication on the COVID-19 pandemic has become critical, one politician has managed to consistently appear in official coronavirus broadcasts – Senator Bong Go.

Almost every episode of the government’s virtual press briefing dedicated to the pandemic features an average two minutes of coverage of Go, a longtime trusted aide of President Rodrigo Duterte.

This virtual press briefing, Laging Handa PH, is aired almost daily on PTV and livestreamed on Facebook. It is hosted by Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar and Undersecretary Raquel Ignacio.

Thousands tune in to the show because various government officials are invited as guests and reporters from private news groups are allowed to send in their questions. These briefings had become even more critical after lockdown measures restricted the mobility of reporters thereby severely limiting their access to public officials.

During the lockdown, only reporters granted IDs by the PCOO, headed by Andanar, were allowed to do field coverage where officials could be interviewed.

For many news agencies, the Laging Handa PH briefings are their only way to directly ask questions to officials and get government information on the pandemic itself, the country’s testing capacity, and new quarantine rules. 

With all this attention on the Laging Handa PH briefings, there’s no doubt that Go is getting premium coverage and exposure.

Rappler surveyed every Laging Handa PH episode and found that Go was featured in every episode since April 7 (episode 21). There are now 61 episodes, as of Wednesday, May 27. This article perused until only Episode 60.

All in all, Go has gotten over two hours of cumulative exposure from these Laging Handa PH briefings. Every minute devoted to Go across 39 episodes where he was featured adds up to 128.9 minutes or two hours.

His airtime here is multiplied significantly considering that even private news channels air the Laging Handa briefings.

Go’s face and name have been shown or mentioned more frequently than any other public official, including President Rodrigo Duterte himself.

Calling attention to good deeds 

On average, each episode devoted two minutes to Go and his advocacies related to the pandemic. Almost always, these Go features are aired within the first 10 minutes of the show, when viewership is high.

The lengthiest features, 5 to 10 minutes long, included a video message by Go or a glowing interview about Go by beneficiaries of programs or initiatives he championed.

For instance, Episode 28 featured words of thanks for his donation to medical frontliners of the Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC) in Davao City.

“Thank you very much, Senator Bong Go, for your kindness and the generosity you have shown…You have a kind heart and your generosity is fully appreciated,” said Leopoldo Vega, SPMC’s medical chief. 

The segment featured photos of sacks of rice being donated to the hospital and photos of Go.

This was quickly followed by good news that government employees could apply for emergency loans online “due to the tireless appeals” of Go to the Government Service Insurance System.

In a later episode (#56), Go was again featured for his donations of rice to doctors in Caraga and a head doctor was again asked to express words of gratitude.

Sometime late March, Go was criticized for donations that prominently displayed his name and face. Quick as a flash, Episode 18 in early February featured a disclaimer from the Lucio Tan-led LT Group. They denied Go had any knowledge of how the donations were packaged.

The company claimed Go’s only involvement in the donations was in “identifying beneficiaries” “in his capacity as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health.” 

Lucio Tan, among the wealthiest men in the country, had been threatened several times by President Duterte until he provided assistance to the government. 

Several episodes broadcast interviews of Go himself weighing on a variety of topics related to the coronavirus crisis.

Episode 30 featured a video taken by Go of himself giving his opinion on the extension of enhanced community quarantine past April 30. 

Sang-ayon po ako na i-extend kung patuloy po ang pagtaas. Sumunod tayo sa mga quarantine protocols para bumaba po ‘yung numero at hindi na po kakalat itong sakit na coronavirus,” he said in the selfie video.

(I support the extension if the cases increase. Let’s follow quarantine protocols so these numbers go down and the coronavirus disease will stop spreading.) 

No other lawmaker’s thoughts on the government’s response to the pandemic has been given this much coverage by the show.

Every now and then, a congressman or senator is featured as a guest, but no single official matches the amount of air time Go gets from these state-sponsored broadcasts.

Secretary Andanar has not responded to Rappler’s requests for his comment.

Go’s ‘Balik Probinsya’

Recently, the episodes about Go have been about his new pet project, “Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa” (BP2). It’s more commonly known as the Balik Probinsya program.

The first episode about Balik Probinsya was Episode 33 aired on April 24 or over a month after the start of the coronavirus lockdown.

In this episode, Go himself explains the program, then just a proposal, through another selfie video.

Nananawagan po ako sa ating pamahalaan, sa national government, na mag-umpisang maglatag ng isang program na Balik Probinsya at iba pang mga hakbang na magbibigay insentibo sa ating mga kababayan na lumipat mula sa Kamaynilaan at iba pang malalaking lungsod papunta sa kanilang probinsya,” he said.

(I call on on our government, our national government, to start laying down a program, Balik Probinsya, and other steps to give our countrymen incentives to move out of Metro Manila or other big cities and return to their provinces.)

Kami po ni Pangulong Duterte ay mga probinsyano rin po mula sa Mindanao,” he added. (President Duterte and I are also from the province, from Mindanao.) 

His call for Balik Probinsya is featured in a few more episodes until Episode 42, when the first piece of news that Laging Handa viewers watch is that of the Senate having expressed support for the program.

A mere 3 episodes later, Laging Handa features news that President Duterte has signed an executive order where he formally adopts Balik Probinsya as a priority project of his administration. (READ: [OPINION] Balik-probinsya, balik-Maynila: Coronavirus and decongesting the city)

It becomes clear in succeeding episodes that Laging Handa PH briefings faithfully follow every development in the Balik Probinsya program. 

By Episode 59, the program’s first batch of beneficiaries are safely brought back to their home province of Leyte. Andanar and Ignacio even interview Leyte Governor Leopoldo Petilla about how he is handling the arrival of the beneficiaries.

More selling 

Balik Probinsya is not the only Bong Go initiative that gets prominently featured. 

Episode 59 talked about Go’s new proposed law, the Medical Reserve Corps Act of 2020. Episode 48 was about Go’s National Academy of Sports bill, which was only barely related to the pandemic. 

There is an episode about Go’s appeal for more support to solo parents, his call for assistance to small businesses, his recommendation that each region have a quarantine facility. 

All these episodes prominently displayed footage and photos of Go’s face, showing him in the Senate, or bringing bags of assistance to frontliners, or speaking to Duterte and other Cabinet members. 

Feeding the Bong Go news cycle

Go’s power is assurance that the Laging Handa briefings will never run out of news about him. His role as senator means he can comment on the executive branch’s efforts but his special closeness to the President means he can make government agencies act on his advocacies in ways no other lawmaker can.

That’s remarkable leverage from a single official and a good source of material for favorable news coverage. 

Balik Probinsya is the best example of this. In the middle of the pandemic, Cabinet members found time to meet on the program then attend the send-off of beneficiaries. 

Go is also present in every coronavirus task force briefing that includes Duterte. These briefings get enormous views because Duterte addresses the public and is expected to make big announcements. 

In one public briefing, Duterte himself even mentioned Balik Probinsya and told the senator to speak about it to millions of viewers expecting major pronouncements on the lockdown.

Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque initially did not respond to Rappler’s query on why Go is included in these task force meetings when he is not a member and is not in the executive branch. No other lawmaker is present in these meetings. (READ: Even as senator, Bong Go still Duterte’s constant companion)

Late Wednesday night, Roque told Rappler in a phone call that Go asked him to relay to Rappler his response to this story.

Addressing Go’s attendance to coronavirus meetings with the President, Roque said Go only attends the portion of the meetings where Duterte addresses the public. This means he is present during the part of the meeting that is broadcast to millions of viewers.

Asked why this is so, Roque said, “Because he promised the electorate that he will forever be at the side of the President until he dies.”

Using government resources

The amount of exposure Go gets from these government broadcasts leaves little doubt that state media resources are being used for his benefit, even in the middle of a pandemic that calls for focused and non-political crisis messaging.

The last time Go was prominently covered by government media was in the months leading to the 2019 senatorial elections. A Rappler in-depth report found that state media were the most prolific in writing up PR (public relations) stories about Go online.

Back then, Go was often featured alongside his pet project, Malasakit Centers, just as he gets coverage now for Balik Probinsya. He is so ubiquitous in government media and even private media coverage that many have branded him as “epal” or someone who inserts himself inappropriately in a situation. 

But why all the media coverage? In early February, back when news of the virus was just cropping up, Duterte teased Go about wanting to run for president in 2022. 

Go quickly denied this, just as he had denied he would run for senator in June 2018. He issued the denial right after Duterte teased his senatorial bid, but ended up running anyway.

Go again denied plans to run for president, through Roque, in a phonecall of the presidential spokesman with Rappler.

“You’re barking at (sic) the wrong tree. He has no plans for the 2022 elections because his term is ’til 2025. There is another candidate for president and it’s not him,” said Roque.

This initial denial strategy has been deployed by Duterte himself, Go’s mentor. Duterte, for months in 2015, played coy about his plans to run for president in 2016.

But unlike Duterte, Go enjoys the full backing of a powerful President with government resources to boot. –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.