On World Press Freedom Day, Mar-Vic Cagurangan, editor and publisher of the Pacific Island Times, questions Guam’s information management of the media amid the US territory’s coronavirus emergency. As she notes in her editorial arguing for transparency over the US$129 million federal aid earmarked for the territory, “We must have missed the fine print; we didn’t know journalistic restraint was included in the list of restrictions under [Governor Lou Leon Guerrero’s] public emergency declaration.”
The people of Guam tune in to the governor’s daily press conference not only to catch daily updates on the status of covid-19 pandemic, but also to get information that is relevant to their quarantined life. For pure entertainment, there is Netflix.
There are two main questions that matter to the people of Guam right now: When do they get to see their stimulus funds? (For one followup question quota per reporter: What are the administration’s actual plans for the federal aid package?)
What is the role of the governor’s chief-of-staff in this whole covid-19 pandemic response programme? (Followup question: Why the hell are we shouldering the cost of his sweet suite life at the Pacific Star [hotel]?). The public has the right to know.
Shockingly, the reporters who asked the questions were shushed outright at Thursday’s press conference. The administration deemed the questions irrelevant to what officials wanted to discuss. Prior to the press conference, the reporters were instructed to limit their questions to the recovery plan, as if there is a shortage of information that it needs to be rationed.
Rationing is applicable only to Spam and toilet papers. We must have missed the fine print; we didn’t know journalistic restraint was included in the list of restrictions under the governor’s public emergency declaration.
“When the world is no longer safe, journalists are the people’s lifeline to the world,” reads a caption on Reuters’ video tribute to journalism. Reporters ask the questions on behalf of the people, who otherwise wait for a ghost to answer the phone at government agencies.
Being censored during a live streaming press conference is like being robbed in broad daylight.
Suppressed questions will not go away
But even if you suppressed these questions, they will not go away. Dodging them will be remembered in the next elections.
We are not, to quote President Trump, “very dangerous and sick,” nor are we the “enemy of the people.” Our role is clearer than Tony Babauta’s. We serve in a free society to create space for public discussion of issues and to ensure an unfettered flow of information. These tasks are magnified by the unprecedented global crisis that has intruded every household and whacked every single person on this planet.
The economic apocalypse caused by the covid-19 pandemic has triggered a collective anxiety. The people of Guam are suffering from sleepless nights, not knowing what’s in store for them in the coming months. The much-ballyhooed federal relief aid — US$129 million for Guam — is what gives them hope.
But how exactly will these funds ease the people’s agony? The local programme that would pave the way for the disbursement of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is still up in the air. The lack of clarity on when these monies will actually reach the people’s pockets exacerbates their consternation.
With much of the information hidden behind the administration’s iron curtain, the people of Guam are left guessing and clutching on to crumbs of information they find on social media. Don’t fall for fake news, the governor advised the community.
“People need to understand that information from an official entity is what they should be following, what they should be using,” Governor Lou Leon Guerrero said in her press conference last week.
Twenty thousand people would die if people didn’t behave. While this may be water under the bridge, the question as to how they came up with this figure that threatened the people’s civil liberties was never clearly answered.
Asking more questions
If official information is metered so cunningly, you have to ask more questions and demand clear answers.
“Now is not the time to blink or look the other way,” Senator Therese Terlaje said, smarting from Govenor Lou Leon Guerrero’s veto of her Bill 333-35 that would mandate transparency on the administration’s management of the federal relief funds.
“It is perplexing to me why the legislature, a co-equal branch of government, and the people of Guam would be denied this basic information while they continue to suffer and instead be told by the administration to submit a FOIA [Freedom of Information Application],” Terlaje said.
The governor keeps the legislature at arm’s length, convinced that managing the CARES Act funds is her exclusive turf.
“A local statute commanding the executive branch to do what federal law already prescribes should not confuse these processes,” the governor said in vetoing Bill 333-35. “Placing additional requirements on the use of these funds is an overreach of legislative authority.”
One can’t blame senators for speculating. “Today we are learning from media reports that the Governor’s Chief-of-Staff is residing at the Pacific Star Hotel, with a billing being sent to the people of Guam. Maybe there are justifiable reasons for this, or maybe it is questionable, but Bill 333-35 would have mandated detailed reports, so that the people would know what is actually going on,” Senator James Moylan said.
“It is worrisome to imagine how these monies can be misspent through questionable contracts and transactions. While we are not here to make accusations, it is vital that our branch of government question expenditures, and merely ask on behalf of the people of Guam.”
When asked during last week’s press conference what lessons have been learned from covid-19 and what holes need to be plugged, the governor replied: communication. “Because the more we teach and communicate to our people, the better I think we will be effectively instituting and implementing our programme and our plans,” she said.
You bet, Madam Governor.
This editorial was originally published in the Pacific Island Times last Thursday, April 30. The Pacific Media Centre’s Asia Pacific Report is republishing it today with permission.