Asked about his working relationship with Mocha Uson, blogger, self-proclaimed “sex guru” and now part of the government communications machinery, Secretary Martin Andanar of the Presidential Communications Operations Office turns bureaucratic.
“She works for me,” he says. “She’s my assistant secretary.” I admit to feeling my brow muscles lift a bit at this, since Uson doesn’t strike me as the self-effacing sort, save maybe in front of her “Tatay Digong.” Asked about the dance group leader’s role in his administration, the President cited his “utang na loob” (deep gratitude) for her support for him even before he was an official presidential candidate. Certainly, she is the most visible among the President’s communications team, eclipsing even his official spokesperson, Secretary Ernesto Abella.
Andanar and Uson currently cohost a daily podcast, called the “DDS Podcast” and meant to communicate directly with the mass audience of Filipinos here and abroad. Some may wonder at the use of the acronym “DDS,” since it first surfaced as a euphemism for “Davao Death Squad,” a purported group of assassins who targeted, at first, communist urban guerrillas, but who eventually broadened its targets to include critics of then Mayor Duterte.
Wielded as a bludgeon against Mr. Duterte to pin him down on human rights violations, the term “DDS” was instead adopted by his followers as a badge of honor. Reports have it that the “new” or “alternative” DDS was created in 2011 as the “Duterte Defense Squad.” Other meanings that have since emerged were “Digong Duterte Supporters” and “Duterte’s Destiny is to Serve the Country” (rather awkward phrasing, that). Whatever, Andanar and Uson have apparently embraced the DDS as a quick and easy identifier for their show.
When our media group seemed a wee bit skeptical about Uson’s true role as a Duterte official, Andanar, himself a former broadcaster, explained that it all had to do with “ratings.” “She has a huge following,” the secretary said of Uson. “Ernie (Abella) and I may be the official voices and faces for policy issues and politics, but surveys tell us that we aren’t reaching the majority of our people.” Instead, he said, they rely on Mocha to convey the gist of policy discussions to the mass audience.
But Uson is also a lightning rod for both favorable and unfavorable reactions, the latter ranging from criticisms of her penchant for “fake news” to outright slut shaming.
What Andanar wants the media to focus on for now is not his assistant secretary but, rather, the good news on the economy. Even nonbelievers in “Dutertenomics” concede that business is “on a roll,” as press materials put it. The upward trajectory established during the Aquino administration has continued, with GDP growing by 7.1 percent in the third quarter of 2016. The construction boom of the last few years continues.
But there are clouds on the horizon. Despite making a lot of economic sense, tax reform or the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Act is drawing a number of brickbats. Consumers are alarmed at the implications of proposed excise taxes on salt- and sugar-heavy food products, which are particularly popular among Filipino households, even the poor.
For his part, Andanar says the tax reform package will eradicate taxes for those on the lower fringes of wage earners, and cut income tax even for middle and upper-middle employees. “Only the top 1 percent would see their income taxes rise,” he claims.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Andanar’s media strategy is the “product” he is selling—the President himself. Indeed, it seems to me that most of his and Abella’s work consists of reinterpreting, redefining, and softening Mr. Duterte’s more provocative, expletive-laden statements. That in itself is quite a heavy responsibility. No amount of fake news, exaggeration, euphemism and gimmicks can cover up the injudicious words coming out of the mouth of a leader who often goes off-script and ends up blaming the media for the “misunderstanding.”
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