My last column on President Rodrigo Duterte (“Did DU30 visit Guangzhou’s Cancer Hospital?,” The Manila Times, Jan. 9, 2017) has created an unfortunate, unnecessary and completely silly media storm. There was not a single malicious, accusatory, pejorative or unfriendly line in that piece, but the mere fact that I raised the question, because of unavoidable circumstances, reportedly pissed off the President. The official reaction made it appear that just by raising it, I had committed some sort of lese majeste, or at the very least an act of “detraction,” a word misused by journalists, grammarians and editors, which actually means revealing someone’s private defects without a sufficiently just public motive.
I sincerely regret that, and beg the President’s forgiveness. But I am innocent of any offense. The main thrust of my column was the lack of consistency in the government’s pronouncements on the President’s whereabouts after the New Year, and not at all about the President’s state of health. The health issue arose only because of the inept discrepancies in the official statements. Nowhere in my column did I claim that the President was suffering from anything other than the ailments he himself has revealed to the nation—-constant migraine, Barrett’s esophagus, Buerger’s disease, etc.
He has also revealed his regular use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid said to be 50 times stronger than heroin and used by cancer patients to treat pain, but he declares vigorously he has no cancer. I faithfully quoted all this without expressing any doubt, reservation or opinion of my own, so there is no reason for him to be peeved and say, “baka mauna pa si Tatad” —-(“Tatad might precede me to the grave”)—-as one tabloid quotes or misquotes him.
In any case, I am six years older than the President, and it is not improbable that I could go before he goes. According to the actuarial data, of those who are 71 years of age, only 25 to 30 percent or so have a chance of reaching 76. But the statement attributed to him did not sound like an actuarial forecast. It sounded more like King Henry II of England complaining about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, before his murder at the Cathedral that cold December morning: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
What’s behind the column?
How did my particular column come about? This is the long and short of it. The Malacañang media had earlier noted that the President had dropped out of public sight for several days after New Year’s Day, and the two explanations offered by the Palace contradicted each other. A “source close to the President” was quoted as saying the President just rested in Davao. “No appointments or anything. He just took time off. He did not travel outside of Davao City. He just stayed home and did not meet anyone. It was a pure ‘me time’ for the President, which he rightly deserves.”
However, when Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella was asked whether DU30 had spent any part of the holidays in Manila, he said, “I am not entirely sure, but I think he spent the latter part of the holidays here in Manila.” Although the question asked for a fact, he offered an opinion, and the opinion contradicted the statement from the “source”—- which has since been echoed by the President’s special assistant Christopher “Bong” Go after the publication of my piece—-that “he never left Davao.”
The two contradictory statements, while trying to protect the President, created a window for legitimate speculation. If the spokesman thought the President had left Davao and spent part of the holidays in Manila, yet nobody had seen him in Manila, was it possible that he had gone somewhere else? This was the most obvious and valid question the Palace reporters should have asked, but did not, leaving a wide gap unplugged. The problem is endemic to superficial reporters. They do not ask the right questions and are more interested in trivia; they let the substance of a story slip by, while trying to squeeze out sensational but inconsequential data.
The report on Guangzhou
At this point, a highly classified source offered the information that the President had taken off on a private plane at 1 p.m. on January 1, 2017 for an unknown destination. Later a second source corroborated the information, saying the President had gone to China. Still a little later, a third source said he had gone to visit Fuda Cancer Hospital in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) in Guangdong Province. Although I had not heard of the hospital before, the information was concrete enough and the sources appeared fairly credible. But without the proper documentation, I did not think the information was usable or useful.
However the Spokesman’s statement that the President might have gone to Manila, except that no one had seen him there, and the statement of the “source,” (now reaffirmed by Bong Go), that the President never left Davao, cast a shadow of doubt on the Palace story. The alleged flight out of Davao on a private plane began to acquire some credibility. Still, I did not say this was, in fact, what had happened. I did not completely buy the story. Instead, this is what I wrote:
“Because of the conflicting statements from Abella and the unnamed ‘source’, there is risk of giving credence to a report, coming from a chain of usually reliable sources, that DU30 did, in fact, leave Davao on board a private executive plane that flew him to China for a meeting with doctors at the world-famous Fuda Cancer Hospital in Guangzhou (formerly Canton).
“I am not prepared to endorse the complete veracity of this report. But it seems to be acquiring a life of its own and growing very fast. I tried checking the story with some people who, I thought, would know the truth, and instead of laughing off my query as absurd and ridiculous, they said they were shocked that I was able to get my hands on the report.”
Malacañang must do a better job
The point was clear. If the Palace had simply said the President had stayed in Davao all the time, without the Spokesman saying he might have also spent some time in Manila, the problem would never have arisen. Had the statement that the President never left Davao remained uncontroverted by the Spokesman, it would have stood like a massive wall against any undocumented claim to the contrary. I would not have mentioned what sources had said about the President’s alleged whereabouts at all.
But as a presidential spokesman for at least ten years, I was appalled at the way the President’s people bungled this simple job. It was poor presidential spokesmanship that was at the root of this unfortunate and unnecessary controversy. This columnist, or the nonconformist and independent press for that matter, is not the problem here. The President’s own spokesmen and propagandists are. They have to do a much better job or be fired. They cannot and must not presume that just because they are in positions of power, and that their duty is to provide Malacañang’s version of official events, the public or the media will accept everything they say about anything without first dissecting it.
Truth and reason alone will decide what official information the public should accept, and after six months of being bludgeoned with strong declarative sentences about the need to kill drug suspects without due process, the public is beginning to reexamine everything they hear from government.
So the President’s retinue spent the last couple of days trying to convince the nation that the President never left Davao during the seven-day “hiatus” in his official New Year schedule. Is the nation convinced? How many believe it? And how many do not?
I will not suggest that the sources of the Fuda story should be believed more than the government, but how is the government faring before the public? If the people believe the official narrative, after it has been repeated ad absurdum by various official sources, why do I continue to receive calls from various media outlets, who are too lazy to conduct their own investigations, asking me to shed light on this incident? As I said, my original interest was in the consistency of what Malacañang tells us about the whereabouts of the President.
If we must talk about DU30’s health
If Malacañang now says the President is in the pink of health, it will not be my duty to contradict or confirm it. They will have to commission their usual propaganda fraudsters to tell us that 90 percent of all Filipinos believe the President is in the best of health. This is what they have been doing to claim sustained popular support for him, amid rising protest against his continued extra-judicial killings of drug suspects.
The crooked pollsters have remained fearless and shameless in bombarding us with lies about how people who are mortally afraid of getting killed as collateral casualties in DU30’s war on drugs continue to “trust” the President. They have not bothered to ask people how many of them trust the crooked polls of Pulse Asia and SWS. And they have not bothered to ask in any poll how many brave Filipinos remain unafraid of their President.
But if we are going to talk about the President’s state of health, which the nation has every right to know, we should have access to scientific findings by competent medical experts. This matter was studiously avoided by the candidates during the last campaign; the President should provide the information on himself, without any compulsion, now.
For starters he could start telling the nation when, and for what reason, fentanyl, which is reported to have caused so many deaths in many countries, was prescribed to him, and is he still taking it? The rest will be for the medical experts to tell us.
The more important issue
But important as the health issue is, DU30 must realize that the survival of his presidency will depend not only on his physical and mental state of health, but above all on the nation’s political, social and economic health. His war on drugs has deeply polarized the nation, and it will not be easy to make it whole again after this “war.” But even as thousands of dead bodies pile up from the extra-judicial killings, there is no clear indication where DU30 is taking the nation, and what clear outcome he would like to see.
If this is a real war on drugs rather than on something else, a visiting friend from abroad points out, where is the Cosa Nostra, the Pablo Escobar or the Medellin cartel, where is the huge stash of heroin or even marijuana, and where is the money? Is this not a mere attempt to clean up the illegal drugs trade of all the small-time drug users and pushers in slippers in the country in order to make way for the big ones?
On another plane, there is increasing paranoia about alleged coup plots against DU30. The most unintelligent stories point to Loida Nicolas Lewis, the rich New York-based widow, as a possible funder of a coup to install Vice President Leni Robredo. Both Lewis and Robredo are from Sorsogon, but like so many Democrats I know, Loida is mourning Hillary Clinton’s loss of the presidency. She is no George Soros, and can’t be in any mood to organize even a fund raiser.
Indeed, there are so many rumors of a coup conspiracy against DU30. The most dangerous conspiracy, my foreign visitor reminds me, is the one you do not hear about, the one you do not see.