I hate the State of the Nation Address.
For a news producer like myself, it is the busiest time of the year for researching stories, producing a series of news segments on the plight of Filipinos and doing a remote coverage at the House of Representatives. The list goes on.
But it is not the busy schedule I can not stand. According to a News Hardcore comic strip from Manix Abrera, there are people who enjoy stress. I think I’m one of them.
My problem is that these stories never change. That’s what I hate about these SONA reports. Time and again, it is the same story of poverty and hunger, of wishes and dreams of a better life. For four years, I’ve been trying to give a face to various social issues that plague the country. But sometimes sharing their stories is not enough. I try my hardest to get their messages across but when the recipient isn’t listening, the impact of these stories could range from minimal to zero.
The numbers and statistics change but the “actual change” is miles away for millions of families below the poverty line. I interviewed three case studies to represent three social issues: poverty, employment and press freedom. I then asked them to rate President Noynoy Aquino from the lowest score of one to the highest grade of five.
Name: Florida Saylanon
Address: By the side of the street, Brgy. 120, Caloocan City
The Saylanon family lives by the sidewalk. The mother, Florida, has no job while the father works as a “mangangalakal,” a scavenger of garbage. He earns around P40 to P50 a day, an amount that is enough to buy a kilo of rice to last the family an entire day.
While the father searches for trash, the mother looks for vegetables around the community, namely malunggay, camote tops and squash leaves. She has become an expert at finding edible food in vegetable patches or in trash bags in an attempt to silence the growling stomachs of her children.
When I visited them, their menu for the night included ginisang malunggay (stir fried moringa) and rice. At 6 p.m. they start fixing their roof which is disguised as a strip of cloth. They have three malnourished children, two of whom are sleeping inside an ice box. Incidentally, this also functions as an inflatable boat during floods.
The youngest child crouch by the gutter. There is no dignity even in sleep as they squat on the grime-covered road.
“It’s even harder when it’s raining. We sleep while standing. I can hardly sleep at night. The mosquitoes keep us awake. All I ever think about is how to feed my family the next day. It gives me a headache.” (translated from Filipino)
But headaches are the least of the health problems Florida worries about. During the interview, all I could hear was her coughing and spitting. She says she often coughs up blood and suspects she has tuberculosis.
However, it’s just a guess. She doesn’t have money to see a doctor, let alone pay the medications.
The Philippine Statistics Authority reports a decrease in poverty incidence from 27.9 percent in 2012 to 24.9 in 2013. Good numbers, some may say, but IBON Foundation director Sonny Africa argues that these figures are misleading:
“The real question is: What is their basis for these poverty surveys? If they are basing these surveys on a daily rate of P52-P53, that is just not enough for a person to live decently. It is more appropriate to say that a Filipino needs more than P100 to get through in a day. But the fact is around 56 to 60 million Filipinos do not earn P100 a day.”
The Saylanon family might have been the perfect case study — no home, no permanent job and a mystery sickness.
In a special series for Saksi, a primetime newscast with anchors Vicky Morales and Arnold Clavio, we produced three connected stories shot in the morning (poverty and hunger), afternoon (employent and education) and evening (shelter, crime and health).
Rating: I asked the couple what grade they would give the President after four years in office. They didn’t know what to say at first, until the oldest of the children, Reny, blurted out: “I would give him a two! Our life is so difficult!” (translated from Filipino)
Name: Marilyn dela Cruz
Address: Dilam, Saudi Arabia
“Even if I’m not in the Philippines, I always watch the news. A lot of Filipinos are still unemployed and I can see little to no action in dealing with the issue of employment.”
Marilyn left the country four years ago in search of a better paying job as a dentist. She had a small clinic in Quezon City but it did not work out. The rent and monthly bills were too high and she was not earning enough for herself and her family.
“It’s not as if there are no patients. A lot of people have dental problems but because of poverty, they would rather spend their money on food than waste it in some oral check-up. I can not blame them. I would rather have broken teeth than an empty stomach.
Yes, it is difficult to live in another country. I lost my freedom and I had to put up with the worst kinds of discrimination against Filipinos. I miss my family all the time but I can not entertain these feelings of homesickness or I‘ll get depressed even more. I need this job badly.”
Marilyn makes collages of pictures of her family during her free time to drive away the sadness of missing her family. Unemployment rate in the Philippines dropped to 7 percent in April 2014 from 7.6 percent in 2013, according to results of the latest Labor Force Survey from the Philippine Statistics Authority.
But the Philippines still has the highest unemployment rate among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as per data from the International Labor Organization. The lack of security in employment forces many Filipinos, like Marilyn, to venture abroad. Over the years, the Philippines has become a factory of overseas Filipino workers with numbers increasing every year.
According to the Country Migration Report, the first recorded statistics on overseas employment started a year after the Labor Code of the Philippines was passed. In 1975, 36,035 Filipinos left the country to work abroad.
A decade later in 1985, the numbers ballooned to 372,784 OFWs — more than 10 times the 1975 figures. In 2012, the Philippines deployed a total of 1,802,031 workers, half of whom were rehires. In an interview, I asked an official of the Department of Labor and Employment about their efforts to improve the quality of jobs in the Philippines. The unemployment rate in the country now is 7% of the population. Half of these are part of the youth sector.
The official discussed four solutions of DOLE to address these problems:
- The long-term effect of the K-to-12 program to make high school and college graduates more competitive.
- A career guidance program to help students identify the jobs that can use their strengths and skills.
- Labor market information to inform universities and job applicants about new industry demands.
- The online job portal phil-job.net that can provide opportunities to thousands of Filipinos.
I stirred the conversation and talked about the increasing number of overseas Filipino workers. I asked the official: “What grade would you give the President?”
The official gave the President the highest possible score of five — along with a promise to reverse the “brain drain” crisis in the Philippines. A perfect score and a promise, it does not take a genius to figure the irony in that.
Rating: Meanwhile, Marilyn is still pulling teeth, literally, to make a living abroad. She gives President Aquino a grade of 2.5/5.
I would like to remind you of the 23rd of November 2009 when 58 members of media were massacred in Maguindanao. May I remind you of your promise of justice and fairness?
In as much as we would like to move on from this tragedy, unless justice is served and the culture of impunity stops, we will never forget.
We will continue to be vigilant and push for the Freedom of Information Bill which you said you would pass before your term ends.
Throngs of media will be there to witness your SONA and we hope that you would allot a few of your long sentences for the issues confronting the Fourth Estate.
Name: Rupert Francis Mangilit
Occupation: Secretary-General, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines
“If we would consider the condition of our press freedom and freedom of information, the President would not even reach a passing score. There is no evident policy change in ensuring the safety of journalists: 26 journalists have been killed during the Aquino regime.
We remain third among countries with the most cases of killings (as per the International News Safety Institute). Few cases are moving forward and our flawed justice system is to blame for the slow pursuit of justice.
Even the Freedom of Information Bill which is supposed to help in our crusade against corruption is also moving slowly. With the help of other media organizations (KBP, PCIJ, CMFR, PPI), and sectoral groups (youth, workers and transparency advocates), we are doing an active lobby to pass the bill as law.
We have already submitted a petition with 38,200 signatures lobbying for the immediate passage of the FOI bill to the Presidential Communications Group. We hope this statement is enough to register our demand for our rights to free access to information.”
Rating: The NUJP gives the Aquino Administration a grade of 1.5/5.
What Now, Mr. President?
The “honeymoon stage” of your presidency is over. Please stop blaming past administrations. Please don’t also argue that policy changes should be given more time.
We have heard your fair share of big words on positive change and improvements in statistics. What we want to hear now is your plan for tangible, accessible change for the lives of Filipinos. We want you and your government to be accountable for the millions of pesos lost to corruption. We want erring officials jailed and our money rightfully returned to the Filipinos.
All scores combined, President Aquino gets a failing score of 2/5 in terms of poverty, employment and press freedom. There are two years to go before your term ends. Numbers are just numbers. The grade you receive is meaningless unless you act on it.
Dear reader, we would like to hear from you. Give us your own grade for President Noynoy Aquino from a scale of 1 to 5. Explain briefly in the comments below.
About the Author:
Hon Sophia Balod is a storyteller. She is currently a News Producer of special reports and features for Balitanghali, Saksi, and State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. She is also a media fellow of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism for Basic and Advanced Investigative Reporting. Journalism 2010, UP Diliman. Read more of her articles here.