Should bloggers be accredited to cover the Palace?

MANILA, Philippines – Since the start of the Duterte administration, pro-Duterte bloggers have demanded the right to cover President Rodrigo Duterte and Malacañang, a right given to accredited journalists.

Palace Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, whose office is in charge of media accreditation, admitted this was one way to acknowledge the support bloggers gave to Duterte during the 2016 elections.

“There’s been a demand from all of these bloggers to cover the Palace since the President stepped into office, June 30, knowing the context of how the President was elected and a major factor also was the help of the bloggers who helped the President,” Andanar told Rappler on Tuesday, January 31.

It was these bloggers who helped generate online buzz for Duterte when his campaign team was low on funds for television and radio advertisements. Duterte’s campaign team “depended” on them.

With this in mind, Andanar, then a newly-appointed official, asked officers of the Malacañang Press Corps, the group of accredited journalists covering the Palace, if they were amenable to giving bloggers MPC accreditation. The officers objected to Andanar's proposal, consistent with their previous position on the issue. (READ: Inside Martin Andanar's man cave)

The MPC has had the final say on applications for MPC membership since the administration of Corazon Aquino, to remove any government bias in the accreditation of Palace media. 

But the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) still found a way to involve bloggers in Palace coverage: by giving them accreditation to join the Philippine delegation to some of the President’s foreign trips.

“They ask for accreditation to attend, for example, China. They go to Singapore and of course they’re supporters of the President so just like any businessman with the support of the President who asks for accreditation to be a delegate, then we give [it to] them,” said Andanar. 

During these trips, bloggers were classified as part of the “social media” delegation, in the same way journalists of MPC are part of the media delegation.

Another PCO official told Rappler the bloggers were handled by the PCO's "Strategic Communication" arm.

Andanar denied government funds are paid to pro-administration bloggers. He said bloggers shoulder their own expenses during foreign trips.

Asked if bloggers are getting paid by private citizens, Andanar said he has "no idea."

More access 

Why accredit bloggers to cover Malacañang? Andanar reasons that it’s consistent with the Duterte administration’s thrust to champion freedom of expression.

“The bloggers always tell me, they always tell me about Article 3, Section 4 of the Constitution. They ask for freedom of expression, freedom to cover. They tell me about FOI, the irony of not allowing them [to cover],” said Andanar.

He said there would be a “big possibility” bloggers would be given accreditation after “consultation” with sectors like mainstream media, academe, and lawyers.

But in several instances, bloggers appeared to have been given even more access to officials than Palace-accredited journalists themselves.

In China and Singapore, for instance, bloggers were able to ambush-interview Duterte in his hotel. Malacañang reporters, on the other hand, were prohibited by the Palace’s Media Accreditation and Relations Office from doing this. Flouting such Palace rules could get MPC members barred from coverage.

On December 29, when Duterte granted 5 media outfits one-on-one interviews, at least one blogger was allowed inside Malacañang, while accredited MPC members who were not part of the 5 media groups had to monitor from outside.

The incidents raise questions among Palace journalists about Andanar’s supposed desire to consistently and evenly uphold freedom of information.

MPC president Jocelyn Montemayor-Reyes declined to comment for this story, opting to wait for Andanar to make an official announcement about accrediting bloggers. 

Thumbed down under Aquino

It was not the first time for Palace communications officials – and the MPC – to confront the issue of allowing bloggers to cover the President.

Under the administration of former president Benigno Aquino III, officials of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) and the Presidential Communications Operations Office (the precursor of the PCO) planned to accredit bloggers as members of the MPC.

The plan was abandoned when officers of the MPC objected to it. Some bloggers, however, were allowed to cover a few major Palace events, like the presidential inauguration.

One of the reasons for the MPC's opposition, recalled a former official, was the issue of accountability.

The former official, who had been part of the Office of the President’s communication arm, said that journalists are accredited “according to their publications or networks who have accountability for what they publish or air.”

Officials found it difficult to determine the criteria for bloggers based on “accountability and who would qualify without opening a can of worms on favoritism.” 

Accountability

When asked what standards he would set for bloggers he would accredit, Andanar said he would require they not be anonymous.

“They shouldn’t be anonymous....They have to have a personality because how can you sue them for libel if they say something wrong? The bloggers have to be responsible and accountable also,” said Andanar.

But Andanar was not clear on how he would impose accountability on bloggers if they resort to name-calling and insulting individuals, or spreading fake news and alarmist information to the public. Unlike accredited journalists, they do not have media companies – with set editorial and ethical standards – who will vouch for and vet them.

Asked what he thought of this tendency of bloggers to use their blogs to insult individuals and resort to name-calling, Andanar said: “It’s their own platform to begin with, they’re not using the government platform. They’re not using PTV4 or Radyo ng Bayan, they’re not using our Presidential Communications Facebook page, they’re on their own.”

Asked what the basis will be for choosing bloggers for accreditation, Andanar said he would accredit not only pro-Duterte bloggers but even those critical of the administration.

“If you’re a blogger for the opposition or if you’re a plain blogger, neutral, or a blogger for Duterte, if you’re a blogger for kalaban (the enemy) then you’re free, we’ll look at your application. But you’re right on the criteria. We should really come up with a general criteria for social media bloggers we think are karapat-dapat na magcover (fit to cover),” he said.

Andanar, however, has yet to identify what those criteria – which will be applied to pro-Duterte, neutral, or anti-Duterte bloggers – will be.

Universal rules govern journalism

Governments all over the world allot funds and other resources to give media organizations access to the seat of power.

If Malacañang has the MPC, the White House in the United States has the White House Press Corps. Government funds are spent to maintain working areas for the press, to provide them transportation and food when they cover the President’s out-of-town or foreign trips.

"The reason for government allocating resources to media is that government has recognized media as a separate power center that has the capability to shape or influence public opinion and to a certain extent, confer legitimacy or condemnation [of] acts of government," said Edwin Lacierda, former presidential spokesman of Aquino.

Lacierda, who himself maintains a blog, admitted that the rise of social media has given bloggers a similar power of spreading information and forming public opinion. But like other Palace communications officials who initially supported the plan to give bloggers MPC accreditation in the previous administration, Lacierda eventually went with the position taken by Palace reporters on the issue.

"In my discussions with the Malacanang Press Corps, there were two elements that they impressed upon me: accountability and journalistic training. Bloggers may not necessarily have the journalistic training in terms of style and editorial quality. Secondly, there was no accountability. Because they were primarily solo bloggers – how does one hold them accountable when there is some inaccuracy in their reporting, especially if the error is egregious, one that goes to the very heart of the basic tenets of journalism?" he said.

Lacierda added that even if bloggers were to address these issues, accrediting them for Palace events must still "be studied long and hard in terms of an institutional structure to support daily reporting by bloggers, and an organization to hold the bloggers accountable like any journalists."

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) trustee Vergel Santos, for his part, explained the differences between blogging and journalism.

“Blogging is an individualistic, free-wheeling operation – although some bloggers are known to follow common, if not collusive, lines of thinking. It’s the readiest, least discriminating (in fact, it’s open to anyone), widest-reaching, and therefore most tempting platform of free expression,” Santos told Rappler.

Journalism, on the other hand, is “both a profession and a trade governed by universal rules of practice and ethics and tradition,” he said.

For instance, media organizations employ editors tasked with checking and vouching for the work of field reporters.

“Journalists are trained in certain disciplines and skills; yet their application remains subject to layer upon layer of checks, and their practitioners are made to assume their share of individual as well as collective responsibility,” said Santos.

Given these major differences, he said there is a danger in any proposal to accredit bloggers.

Blogging a 'runaway train'

“Accrediting bloggers would encourage a blurring of the distinction between legitimate journalism and pseudo journalism – of which blogging happens to be today’s most typical example,” Santos said.

This blurring would be a “disservice” to the public, the primary consumers of information.

“The confusion necessarily extends to the audiences, and that’s where the disservice and the danger lies,” said Santos.

Definitely, media organizations are not perfect, as the CMFR points out in its posts “jeering” media groups for missteps and lapses.

Groups like CFMR, a media watchdog foundation, have a right to demand accuracy of information and fairness from media groups precisely because of the rules journalists are bound to. No such rules govern bloggers.

As Santos put it, while media is an "engineered train," blogging is a "runaway one."

To be sure, there are bloggers who follow media standards and exert efforts to be professional.

But there are bloggers, pro-Duterte or not, who don’t subscribe to this. Some openly curse, insult, or spread alarmist information – all of which bring hits to their blogs.

Merriam-Webster defines a troll as an online personality who "antagonizes others online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content...trolls engage in the most outrageous and offensive behaviors possible." Will trolls also be up for accreditation by the Palace?

Andanar said trolls can send PCO their application for accreditation.

"They can apply, we’ll see," he told Rappler.

If blogger-trolls were accredited, how would Andanar hold them accountable, and which standards would be applied?

Why media organizations matter

Aside from accountability, journalists have media organizations that vouch for them to ensure things such as the security of the President. These organizations also make sure that reporters don't decide to use official trips abroad as opportunities to migrate illegally.

Such was the case when a Palace-endorsed reporter was never seen again after arriving at a US airport during one of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's many trips to the United States. 

The reporter's company considered sanctions because it had vouched for their reporter, who had used its name to secure a government endorsement for a US visa, according to Palace sources privy to the information. It was not the first time that such an incident happened.

While media organizations can be held accountable for the actions of their reporters, who will be held accountable for the actions of bloggers? 

Not all bloggers think Palace accreditation is a good idea.

Blogger MaroCharim wrote down some thoughts on the issue way back in 2010 when the Palace was thinking of granting bloggers accreditation.

The blogger wrote: “On a question of accreditation: my stand is no....For the blogger, I think it is from the periphery where he or she has the most freedom, and therefore the most power. To move to the center is to give up a lot of that freedom, a lot of that movement and dynamism, and in effect become part of the old guard.”

But some pro-Duterte bloggers think differently. Not only do they want to give their own take on the President’s pronouncements and activities, they want to take the place of media as the primary news source of citizens.

That, too, is a different form of power. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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