Friday, February 28

Your next USC

Scene from this year’s mudslinging debate.

The last time I published a post, Diliman was gearing up for this year’s elections. As I write this, the polls have closed and the votes have been counted. We now know who will make up next year’s University Student Council.

In my last post, I said that this year’s elections would be a referendum on the performance of KAISA, which was the majority in this year’s council. The students have spoken: only one KAISA councilor bet made it to the top 12, and only two colleges have KAISA candidates for college representatives-elect. On the campaign trail, the party was frequently asked what had happened to their promise of One Strong UP.

Age-old debates continued to rage. Is STAND UP’s militant brand of activism still relevant in today’s world, and considering the evolving makeup of the student body of UP? Should the socialized tuition system of the university—recently revised and renamed STS—be scrapped or reformed?

ALYANSA’s victory this cycle is decisive. Both their standard bearers, as well as seven councilors, will serve in next year’s council. Evidently, despite recent controversy surrounding the party and the stance it took regarding the General Assembly of Student Councils, Diliman is willing to get behind the “new USC” that it offers.

One will note with surprise that the top two councilor spots were taken by independents—Jethro David, whose advocacy is Natural Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, and Raymond Rodis, who advocates a more personal and approachable USC. Did the specificity of their platforms appeal to UP, or did the student body long for the refreshing sight of independent candidates amid the din of inter-party mudslinging? Maybe it was a little bit of both.

The most bothersome statistic from this year’s elections: less than half—48.07%—of eligible voters went to the polls. Most of Diliman either doesn’t care about local politics, or is so jaded by it that they didn’t think it was worth their while to take five minutes to line up and vote, if only to register their discontent by clicking “Abstain” on all positions. Neither possibility is good.

This cycle, like the others before it, surprised me. I never expected there to be so many UP students passionate enough about university and national issues to buy two weeks’ worth of a monochrome wardrobe, and I’ve never understood why they always wait until February to come crawling out of the woodwork and try to outdo each other’s nationalism and passion for service.

Tomorrow, there’ll be no more smiling faces in AS, no more impassioned speeches during room-to-room campaigns, and much less will be said about which councilors have what kinds of USC GA attendance records. But I sure hope that the last two weeks are only the start, and not the quick end, of these flaming passions.

• • •

Congratulations are in order for Tinig Ng Plaridel, the official student publication of the UP College of Mass Communication. They provided terrific coverage of this year’s elections.

Wednesday, February 5

Election season once again

Infographic by Tinig Ng Plaridel. For fair and accountable reporting
on the USC elections, check out their special section, Botong Isko.

It’s University Student Council election season once again in UP Diliman, that time of the academic year when social awareness and the many different brands of “activism” become fashionable. It usually doesn’t last very long: once the campaigns, dorm tours, debates and mudslinging wrap up and the elections are held, things return to normal overnight.

All the same, I’m not complaining. I’d like to believe most UP students keep abreast of matters of national importance and contribute to the public debate, if only during tambay hours and jeepney rides with friends home.

The single most important local issue that will dominate this cycle is the university’s socialized tuition scheme, which was recently modified by the system’s Board of Regents. This latest change includes adjusted thresholds for brackets and a new “super-rich” tier, for which tuition will be at P2,000-P2,500 per unit. That’s P500-P1,000 more than the current highest rate.

The proposed STFAP revisions speak to a bigger question about the public character of UP. Since the socialized tuition system was first implemented in 1989, critics have painted it as UP’s way of skirting its duty to provide free quality tertiary education to those who deserve it. Others argue that the STFAP makes education in UP more accessible to some at the expense of others who can afford the added burden anyway. They say that this, along with other measures such as renting out idle property, allows UP to continue to fulfill its mandate while remaining financially viable.

Yolanda will also be high on the minds of this year’s candidates. When it struck Visayas last year, various student groups quickly organized extensive relief operations. Kabataan Partylist, which is allied with the political party STAND-UP, organized the Tulong Kabataan volunteer network; the USC, dominated this year by KAISA, led the #IskoOperation relief drive. But the biggest question is how the different parties have responded to the plight of UP’s campuses in Tacloban and Palo, and what representations they have made with university officials regarding students from the Visayas campuses who have been transferred to other units, including Diliman.

We can also expect the discussion to include the controversy surrounding Congressional pork barrel, especially since the Supreme Court recently heard arguments on the Disbursement Acceleration Program, which critics have referred to as the President’s own pork barrel. Some quarters argue that discretionary funds are an indispensable for effective governance, while others charge that both the DAP and the PDAF are simply corruption magnets and should be abolished altogether. The SC is also poised to soon release its decision on the fate of the Reproductive Health Law, which was another point of minor contention around this time a couple of years ago.

This year’s elections will also be a referendum on how well the USC and the ruling party have performed over the course of the academic year. Last year, KAISA ran and won on the platform of “One Strong UP,” vowing to unite all of the university’s competing ideologies and leanings toward one common goal. The results of the elections will reveal whether UP students think that strategy has worked.

Furthermore, this year’s USC suffered a blow to its morale when it impeached Education and Research Committee Head Lemuel Magaling. The charges included absences and tardiness, as well as the allegedly unauthorized use of the USC logo for a video produced by STAND-UP, to which Magaling belongs. The Council was accused of politicking because of this, although all charges were later dropped and Magaling reinstated.

These are the issues that the student body will weigh when it casts its vote on February 27, and this is the landscape that the elected USC will face when it assumes office in June. Drastic changes are underway for both UP and the nation. In the end, UP’s student body must choose leaders who can best fulfill the university’s enduring duty: to serve the People.

Friday, January 31

Intellectual RH debate



You have to hand it to the reproductive-health extremists. What they lack in logic, they make up for in sheer vitriol.

Their latest victim is the recently concluded Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (APCRHSR) at the Philippine International Convention Center. The same people who made the most noise in the days of the RH Bill debate filed a petition before a Pasay City court to prevent the event from pushing through.

The petition was filed on the eve of the opening of the APCRHSR; it was subsequently denied by the court, and the conference began and ended without a hitch. But the bigger point is loud and clear: if you think they’ll stop at anything to get their point across, you’re wrong.

Now, there’s a separate question of what their point is, and the answer to it is not immediately clear. During the RH debate, our best guess was that they thought our laws should be based on the Bible. And not just any Bible, but the version/s they had in their hands. And not just the Bibles in their hands, but only specific verses in it. And not just specific verses, but the Catholic Church’s specific interpretation of these verses. Of course, the language of their argument was nowhere as overt, and was instead comfortably coated in euphemistic references to a pro-life Constitution whose preamble implores the aid of Almighty God.

In this specific petition, the camp seems to be making the case that the idea—not the act, but the idea—of abortion is so abhorrent that the mere mention of the word is a violation of the Constitution. At this rate, the group should also file petitions for an injunction against dictionaries sold in the Philippines that include an entry for “abortion.”

The other extreme isn’t much better, either. Rabid pro-RH proselytizers think of the law as a magic bullet for all of the country’s problems. To them, anyone who opposes the law is a Bible-wielding bigoted old lady who is bothered by the mere idea of a condom. Some arguments, for example, went overboard in their defense of the RH Bill, changing the debate from a consideration of the merits and demerits of the proposed law into a nonstop bashing of religion in general.

In perpetually trying to outshout each other, these two extremes may have dominated the Reproductive Health Bill debate, but I am of the hope that they actually make up a very noisy minority. In the process, they drown out what we really need right now—an honest, respectful, and intellectual RH debate based on straight facts and sober logic. There are a great many of us who are wary of, if not outright opposed to, the RH Bill for reasons not explained in the Bible. In the same way, there are many who favor the passage of the law, but not because they believe our problems are caused solely by poor people who can’t stop breeding.

When the RH Law was still a bill, the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives expressed opposition to the fact that it was being peddled as a population control measure. The problem, they said, was not that there are too many of us, but that we aren’t getting enough of what we need. (The Makabayan bloc eventually voted in favor of the bill while maintaining their reservations.) Population scientists have also warned against the effects of negative population growth. Countries with an old population lack a robust workforce, which is crucial to economic development. A strong workforce is what our country needs, not a smaller one.

You know what these arguments represent? A reasonable opposition, which is something we sorely lacked when the RH Bill was still pending in Congress. Now that the RH Law is nearing implementation (unless, of course, the Supreme Court goes into an irrational fit), we need to watch it even more closely, and discuss it more soberly.

In the Senate and the Lower House, we were discussing in the language of hypotheticals; when the SC lifts its TRO, we will be dealing with real effects and real taxpayer pesos in expenditures. Now is the time for vigilance.

Photo from Flickr / Jason Licerio

Monday, January 20

Reading the news in general

Flickr / gramicidin

Last week, I talked about the news that Kim Jong Un’s uncle had been fed to starving dogs as punishment for his alleged treason. The report, as we know, turned out to be nothing more than a piece of fanciful fiction. Ridiculous though it may seem in retrospect, few people had trouble believing it when it broke on the major news networks.

Today, when you ask a Journalism major to define the discipline, chances are he or she will rattle off a few choice phrases from “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. It’s subtitled “What the newspeople should know and the public should expect.” I like that because it underscores the fact that the discipline of journalism is a two-way street. I read the book for my Journalism 101 course, but really, it is as relevant to the average news consumer as to the freshman Journalism major.

Kovach and Rosenstiel define journalism is a discipline of verification, and the first litmus test of a credible report is independent corroboration. Ask yourself: does the report prove that the allegations have been separately confirmed by two or more people? Or, even better, is the story based on documentary evidence? Pieces of paper lie far less frequently than people.

Where are you getting your news from? Generally speaking, you can trust the Philippine Daily Inquirer to be careful in vetting the reports that come across their wires; a WordPress.com blog run by a pseudonymous solo reporter, not so much. (Take note, of course, that a news report isn’t credible solely because a mainstream outlet published it. Case in point: the Kim Jong Un starving dogs story.)

Thankfully, there is a solution to the problem of factual accuracy in reporting, and it’s built into the discipline. When Newspaper A comes out with a report that is later proven incorrect by Newspaper B, the former’s credibility with its audience is injured, and the latter’s, bolstered. Thus, news outlets have every incentive to make sure they get their facts straight, and to police each other’s reports. It’s through this mechanism that the truth almost always finds its way to the surface.

Newsreaders, however, have more to be vigilant about than just the accuracy of the facts in news reportage. The duty of journalism, after all, is not merely to repeat facts, but to present the truth. I’ve always liked my Journalism professor’s simple but clear explanation: it’s a fact that Gloria Arroyo was proclaimed winner of the 2004 Presidential elections, but the truth is that the polls were riddled with accusations of irregularities.

This leads me to my next protip: for potentially controversial stories, read multiple sources. The more you do this, the more you’ll learn just how powerful the journalist’s job of angling a story is. Let’s turn to a recent news item, the recently released Pulse Asia survey, for a demonstration.

I googled “latest aquino ratings pulse asia” and got a bunch of headlines from different news sites. Inquirer.net’s story was “Aquino approval rating dips in new poll.” It’s simple enough, and it doesn’t sound like any special treatment was given to its angle. Rappler’s was “Aquino ratings drop in Luzon;” still fairly straightforward, while focusing on one particular aspect of the survey. Manila Standard Today’s story was headlined: “Binay tops Aquino in survey trust ratings.” This is true, as well, and is particularly interesting because it tells us more about the political landscape. The President and the Vice President are not party-mates; Binay is almost sure to make a run for the top post in 2016. GMA News Online had a similar headline: “More Pinoys approved, trusted VP Binay than PNoy in Q4 of 2013 – Pulse Asia.” And ANC led with another angle: “PNoy's ratings remain high despite 'Yolanda' - Pulse Asia.”

A same story can be spun a thousand different ways. Stories on trust ratings, which come out every so often (and, in the Philippines, from at least two different polling outfits), may be relatively benign, but see what you’ll find when you google more controversial stories like the pork barrel scam. For kicks, I would also suggest googling coverage of militant protest actions to see how they’re treated by the media.

There’s also the very interesting question of why these angles differ the way they do. Sometimes, it’s merely a question of the most interesting, attention-catching, quirkiest way to lead a story. Other times, the reporter may be beholden to a certain person or office. Or, the owners of a newspaper may slightly nudge its editors, who may then soften stinging angles so as not to offend powers that be.

Reporting the news is tough work, so read it the way it deserves to be read.

Monday, January 13

Reading news about General Kim

Photo from rodong.rep.kp

When a dog bites a man, it’s not news. But when a man bites a dog, that’s news. Unless, of course, you’re talking about coverage of North Korea.

Late in December, news outlets worldwide picked up a story saying that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally witnessed his uncle, whom he had convicted of treason, get fed to a pack of starved dogs.

The story has since been debunked (see the Washington Post and this Reuters wire report). Hongkong-based Wen Wei Po was the first to push the story despite its lone source being a satirical post on a Chinese social media site. The report got carried by the Straits Times, then by other Western media outlets, mainly because Wen Wei Po is seen as a “pro-Beijing” publication. Apparently, editors had sufficient reason to believe the story was backed by sources from within the political machinery of China, which is seen as the most reliable among North Korea’s few remaining friends.

But why did this tale get so much traction in the first place? It’s easy to blame the confusion on the secretiveness of North Korea, which is possibly the world’s last remaining black hole of information. We don’t know exactly what goes on in there. The state is notoriously closed to outside scrutiny. What little news that makes it out of the hermit state does so either through Chinese sources, the South Korean intelligence agency, or pro-DPRK propaganda from the Korean Central News Agency.

It isn’t entirely their fault, however. This sort of thing happens all the time online. Sharing a link with an attention-grabbing headline on Facebook, after all, is much easier than taking the time to read the story to scrutinize its credibility. News websites are not pressured to see if a story checks out before pushing it, either. A factual error is much easier to fix online than on a national daily’s print edition or a network’s primetime newscast.

It happened when a news story spread about Pope Francis supposedly declaring that there is no Hell. A quick Google search would reveal that there is no such thing as the “Third Vatican Council,” during which the Pope purportedly made the declaration. It happened in June 2012, when Ricky Lo reported that Manny Pangilinan had “virtually confirmed” a merger between TV5 and GMA7, without including a direct quote to support the news. Pangilinan refuted the story. And it happened in August 2012 as authorities pursued a search-and-rescue operation for then-Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose plane had crashed in the waters off Masbate. Someone tweeted that she had spoken to Robredo’s daughter, who allegedly told her the Secretary was “alive and well.” A hundred retweets later, the information sadly turned out to be false.

It’s a good habit to read the news, but it’s an even better habit to read it critically. In my next column, I’ll talk about journalism as a discipline of verification and try to teach you how to read the news as diligently as journalists report it.

Monday, January 6

Last two minutes


Last week, President Benigno Aquino III claimed that the government has been rid of all but its “last bastions of corruption” in the “last two minutes” of his presidency. My opinion has always been this: although the President has certainly earned popular trust, his stand on the issue of transparency remains murky at best, and his efforts to open up the government to constructive scrutiny have been mediocre and halfhearted. In particular, the President has consistently shown a dislike for the press and failed to enact measures that would greatly increase confidence in the government in general (as opposed to his administration alone).

President Aquino has, on numerous occasions, chastised the press for its critical coverage. He has also asked it to put a positive spin on current affairs coverage. Speaking at the 25th anniversary of ABS-CBN primetime newscast TV Patrol, he said: “Kung gabi-gabing bad news ang hapunan ni Juan dela Cruz, talaga namang mangangayayat ang puso’t isip niya sa kawalan ng pag-asa.” Recently, he commended his critics to a higher power: “Bahala na si Lord sa inyo, busy ako.” What are we to make of a President who announces the near-eradication of corruption from his government, then complains about critical coverage? The pork barrel scam and the response to the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda are only two events that serve to remind us about what is left to be done in government.

As far as aversion to scrutiny goes, President Aquino walks the talk, too. The Freedom of Information Bill, which would greatly increase transparency in government, has so far languished in Congress. It can’t be because of a lethargic Legislature. After all, the Cybercrime Law and the impeachments of two appointees of his predecessor and sworn arch-nemesis all went through without a hitch. It started to move along in the last Congress, but ultimately died as Congress adjourned after taking on various shapes and forms during months of turbulent debate. There’s hope still that it will be passed in this Congress—Senate President Franklin Drilon expressed optimism it would happen by March—but one only knows how the bill will evolve as it makes its way through both Houses.

The FOI Bill would allow not just the media, but the public in general, to more freely and easily access government documents and data that should, in any case, lie in the public domain. This includes statements of public officials’ assets, bidding documents and contracts, and spending records. If President Aquino is so eager to tell us that he has cleaned up government, why won’t he allow us to see for ourselves? Any claim to good governance is strongest when it includes an invitation to scrutiny. A government cannot call itself clean then ask the public to take its word for it.

President Aquino has also been sluggish in his response to the sorry state of press freedom in this country. Despite being an avowed democracy, the Philippines remains the third most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism, according to the 2013 Impunity Index of the Community to Protect Journalists, which “spotlights countries where journalists are slain and the killers go free.” We’re worse off than places like Afghanistan and Mexico.

Yet Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma, in an admittedly na├»ve public-relations blunder, said the situation was “not that serious”—that is, if one discounts the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, history’s single deadliest attack against journalists. Coloma quickly corrected himself in the press room, but the slip indicates how halfhearted this administration’s efforts have been. The record shows as much: the Maguindanao Massacre cases continue to creep forlornly through court, and notable killings, such as that of Palawan radio commentator Gerry Ortega, have yet to be resolved.

It still remains to be seen whether President Aquino has truly erased corruption from our government. Although most of his efforts so far have been notable—the BIR’s increased collection efforts and a sometimes politically costly continuing revamp of the Bureau of Customs come to mind—they are not enough. Government can only truly begin to be clean when the public can see for itself and not have to rely on his word.

There’s one thing the President is right about, though: the game is in its last two minutes, and the ball is in his court.

• • •

Edited on 7 January to separate the second paragraph from the first.

Monday, December 30

Dvorak the Q10



My new phone, a BlackBerry Q10 I’ve christened Dvorak (after the dated-looking but still very sensible regular guest on This Week in Tech), is the ugly duckling of smartphones. It’s stout, unsexy, and relatively boring. Its voice will go unnoticed in the middle of the cacophonous iOS-Android wars. I can use it to call, text, tweet, post to Facebook, and send an email, but really, nothing more than that.

And that’s why I chose it.

It’s pretty simple as far as phones go. The top half of it is dominated by a square multitouch OLED screen, and the bottom half, by a beautiful backlit QWERTY keyboard. This form factor is what BlackBerry became popular for, although I doubt anyone born later than 2002 could ever guess that “persistent” keyboards on phones were ever de rigueuer. When I want to call someone on it, I look for their name on my Contacts list, or type in their number then tap “Call.” When I want to send someone an email, I open up BlackBerry Hub, type out my message, and hit “Send.”

In fact, I’m willing to bet that the Q10 is the best smartphone on the market, if we use the outdated definition of a smartphone as a device that allows you to communicate with others by calling, texting, emailing, tweeting, and Facebook-messaging them. At least one online review describes call quality on the Q10 as being comparable to that of landline phones. The BlackBerry Hub provides access to all your messages from different accounts, from anywhere in the OS, with a single gesture. And did I mention the QWERTY keyboard? It feels like I’ve grown little touch-typing fingers on my thumbs.

But sadly, no matter how excellent the call quality is on this thing, and no matter how easy it is to send an email or text, it still can’t compete on the market with the likes of the iPhone 5S or the Samsung Galaxy S4. You can still see individual pixels on the screen if you look for them. The tiny square display means you won't be able to stare into Bobby Flay’s freckles when you’re watching Iron Chef. And God help you if you ever have to put up with a phone that doesn’t let you flip through photos just by waving your hand over the screen. The “smartphone” isn’t what it used to be, and BlackBerry never got the memo.

When did phones need to be the panacea for all our digital wants? When did my communication device start to need to have a four-stroke engine?

Sure, Dvorak has deficiencies that often become glaring. The battery life, while better than my previous phone’s, is nowhere near what I had hoped it would be (although I suspect it’s a problem that’s unique to my unit). And the app ecosystem is just downright depressing, even with Android sideloading. On some days, the thought enters my head that I should have just sprung for the Samsung Galaxy S4, with its big screen and its wide range of app choices.

When I start to think like that, I remind myself that although it’s easy to point out the features lacking in Dvorak that seems to be standard in the competition, it’s much more satisfying to appreciate how the Q10 can stand without all the trinkets of the common modern smartphone. In a world where mobile phone makers are trying to outdo each other year in and year out with higher PPI counts and “bigger pixels,” BlackBerry has managed to make a phone that’s just right. Dvorak will leave it to the Samsungs and Sonys of the world to battle it out for the title of the “Next Big Thing.” The Q10 has achieved smartphone zen. It doesn't have to be glamorous. All it has to do is be.