PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has been quite unhappy with reports on his prolonged and unexplained absences from work, and the consequent speculations about his state of health. I am sorry to hear it, but as a journalist whose public duty is to his readers, I write what I must, despite the efforts of some in my craft to act as official propagandists, and the refusal of the establishment press to pay more attention to this extremely sensitive subject.
Per Rappler’s count, the President had been absent from work this year on three prolonged stretches—four days in February, and 11 days in June, from the 12th to the16th, and then from the 20th until yesterday. My own count includes the New Year holidays, when by his own subsequent and forced admission, he went to Guangzhou, China, on a medical visit.
Last January, Ernesto Abella, the presidential spokesman, announced that the President spent the New Year holidays in Davao and never left the city. He was on private time, Abella said, and received absolutely no callers. For days, the nation heard nothing about, nor from, the non-stop talking President. But when some reporters asked Abella if there was any chance he had left Davao to visit Manila, the spokesman said he might have.
Which was a total contradiction of his earlier statement. This prompted me to ask whether he could have, in fact, gone out of the country, quoting reports from Davao that he had gone to Fuda Cancer Hospital in Guangzhou, China. My question was instantly transformed into a “declarative sentence,” and I was erroneously quoted as saying the President had, in fact, gone to Fuda. I never did.
Malacañang categorically denied the erroneous attribution, and the hospital put out a series of ill-framed ads saying PDU30 had not gone to Fuda, while pointing out with obvious pride that Fuda had the most advanced method of treating cancer in the world. This was the best way of fueling the very speculation Malacañang wanted to avoid!
This gave the mainstream media a golden opportunity to investigate and find out the truth. What should the public believe—the story erroneously attributed to this columnist or the statement coming from Malacañang and the Fuda hospital management? But no media organization saw the need to verify the truth for its own sake. And none of them demanded that the President make use of impartial and competent medical certificates. It remained a private controversy between Malacañang and this columnist.
Given the President’s highly emotional response to the issue, I decided to lay off the story.
But a few days later, a highly informed diplomatic source told me he had seen a photo of the President with a Filipino nurse at Fuda during his unacknowledged visit. It was evidently a “selfie” (so common among Filipinos these days) which had reached some foreign diplomats. Having earlier decided not to touch the story anymore, I asked a senior member of the Cabinet to tell the President about the photo, fearing it might surface in the future, not through this columnist, but through some other sources.
I thought I was doing the President a favor, against my own interest as a journalist. But instead of thanking me for it, the President blasted me in a series of public speeches. He confirmed grudgingly that he had indeed visited Fuda, but only “to see where Tatad had himself circumcised, so he could also have his own boyhood circumcision fixed.” By trivializing and vulgarizing the issue, he succeeded in avoiding a serious discussion about his state of health. He would rather that people speculate.
Evasco and the Cabinet
Earlier this month, when the President finally reappeared after dropping out of sight from Independence Day until four days later, I quoted Cabinet sources reporting a briefing given by Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., which said DU30 had a mild stroke which reportedly affected one of his arms and compelled him to go to Cardinal Santos Memorial Center at Greenhills for observation. Hospital sources added that he also underwent a peritoneal dialysis.
My column reportedly angered the President, prompting Abella to accuse me of “fantasizing” about the President’s health condition, and my own paper (The Manila Times) to run Abella’s statement on the very space where my column regularly appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, without asking for my comment on his statement, as is normally required in most publications.
Even the other newspapers, which did not carry what I reported in my column, ran Abella’s statement on my alleged “fantasizing.” In all my years of newspapering, from the first day I wrote for a national newspaper through my 10 years as press secretary, presidential spokesman and information minister until this particular incident, the honored practice was for a newspaper not to run a government rejoinder to a story which it did not report in the first place, but was carried exclusively by another newspaper. This remains the rule, as far as I know, but the newspapers were apparently pressured to make an exception in this particular case.
The real ‘fantasy’
There was no attempt to create a “fantasy” in my report, which was attributed to Evasco as the ultimate source. In fact, it was the President who tried to weave his own fantasy by saying that during the five days that he was out of public view, he had gone to a secret place, which he could not yet disclose. The Philippine Star quoted DU30 as saying he had to go there incognito, as a private individual, rather than as President. With all due respect, this was an awful lot of nonsense on its face.
Nor was it anywhere near a negative piece. It was rather a constructive one. In fact, many readers have thanked me for showing deep concern for the President’s health and expressed the hope that the people around him would help him become more transparent.
The unforgivable thing is that Abella, a Protestant pastor, was reportedly present in the Cabinet briefing where Evasco shared the information about the President’s health. How could he possibly brand as a “fantasy” a truth which he himself was personally familiar with? Isn’t this a perversion of the values that allow him to preach morality and goodness to the members of his church?
Equally unforgivable, if not more, is the failure of the media to ascertain the real truth about what Abella is saying about the President’s absences. This has gone on far too long. When the President finally reappears after his latest absence—and this could happen even as this column goes to print—I hope there would be a far more intelligent explanation, and the media will not simply quote what Malacañang is saying, but will verify and confirm the truth of what it says before it repeats the statement.
I do not want to be hard on Abella. In my youth, I served as press secretary, presidential spokesman and information minister for 10 years during one of the most difficult periods in our nation’s history. I know it is not an easy job. At the Non-Aligned Conference of Information Ministers in Tunis in 1976, the Tunisian information minister told me, on learning that I had been in office since I was 29 in 1969, that in Africa the average tenure of a presidential spokesman was six months—he was always the first to go whenever the head of state or government ran into trouble. But while speaking for and defending the President, the spokesman must always speak the truth, and never lie either for his job or his master.
Falsifying the news
There was a time during Martial Law when one particularly unscrupulous Malacañang reporter tried to ingratiate himself with the President, and shoehorn himself into the inner power circle, by manufacturing news stories calculated to make Marcos look good to the public. With the support of some Palace aides, who were his friends, he tried to shove these press releases to the media through my office.
This was before the era of the fake news.
They all sounded readable, but they were all inventions and had no factual bases. I said I would not be part of the deception and falsehood, and banned the reporter from ever trying to use my office. He tried to appeal his case to the President, but the President upheld my position that no government position or pronouncement should ever be based on fiction or falsehood.
In the controversial ratification of the 1973 Constitution through the citizens assemblies, I shared the view expressed by Supreme Court Justice Claudio Teehankee Jr. that the Constitution was perhaps not properly ratified by the Filipino people. Therefore, when I was asked to announce the purported ratification by a specific number of votes, I formally begged off, saying I was not convinced there had been a valid ratification and that if I made the announcement I would incur a grave sin which I would have to bring to the sacrament of confession.
The announcement had to be done by the Secretary of the Interior and Local Government.
A challenge to DU30’s men
I do not expect Abella to be as hardheaded and stubborn as I was, in my youth. But I don’t believe he should try to imitate Donald Trump’s Sean Spicer, or Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, Saddam Hussein’s information minister and spokesman during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Spicer has gifted the White House press corps with a new style all his own that includes hiding in the bushes to avoid some mediamen. Al-Sahhaf, who earned the name of Baghdad Bob, entertained the world with his incredibly comical refusal to acknowledge that the invading US forces had already entered Baghdad and that Saddam’s rule was at an end.
Something deadlier than a foreign invading force has entered our moral and social domain, which the President and his men must now recognize and confront, if the government and the nation are to prevail.