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Media on 31st ASEAN Summit | CMFR

Media on 31st ASEAN Summit

Screen grab from the ASEAN 2017 official website

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit is always a major media event, especially in the country that hosts it, a duty that rotates among its members. On November 10 to 14 this year, the Philippines hosted the leaders of the ten member countries and key dialogue partners for the 31st ASEAN Summit on what is the 50th year of the regional association.  It is not the first time for the Philippines to host the gathering of leaders, having done so in 1987 and in 2007.

At no other time nor in any other city of the region could the occasion require such extraordinary adjustment for the hosting community. The meeting enforced the suspension of school at all levels for the entire week and three work holidays for the duration of the meeting. These measures enabled government to dedicate major routes for the use of official delegations and everyone else involved in all ASEAN-related activities.

With or without the summit, the ASEAN and its issues draw more media attention in other countries in the region because the ASEAN secretariat is located in Jakarta which ensures a continuous flow of information and news about ASEAN activities. A quick scan of various English newspapers will show that at any given time, the Philippine media will have less than the coverage one would find in Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia.

Ironically, the hosting of the summit did not engage too many Filipinos. Many of Metro Manila residents took advantage of the school break to leave the city for holidays or chose to stay in to avoid the hassle of traffic. A newspaper even provided suggestions about out-of-city destinations.  Media coverage focused on scheduled events and highlights, much of which projected the participation of the leaders from the dialogue partner countries, rather than the ASEAN national leaders themselves.

As for the issues, some of these made headlines such as agreements on trade and economic cooperation, migrant workers’ rights and terrorism.  It was left for the post-summit review to break through the surface of the event and provide analysis and discussion of the regional context and its effect of Philippine policies.

CMFR monitored reports from the newspapers Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Manila Bulletin and The Philippine Star; news programs 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), News Night (CNN Philippines), and TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2); as well as select news websites from November 13 to 20, 2017.

Basic Knowledge of ASEAN

Despite its significance, there was no attempt in the media to familiarize Filipinos with the ASEAN and its fifty-year history. The Philippines was one of the ASEAN’s five founding members in 1967. That Foreign Affairs minister Narciso R. Ramos was among those who planned and conceptualized the regional organization, was not mentioned by the media. The ASEAN may not be perfect but it has lasted all this time and has been cited for consolidating the regional community into a neighborhood of stability, peace and progress.

Each meeting is experienced by a younger generation who will in turn become engaged in the growing trade and cultural links that hold ASEAN together. As the ASEAN has continued to put together regional frameworks for trade and economic cooperation, there is much for the media to do to raise the issues that contribute to regional security and solidarity.

Less on the trivial, but needs more depth

Media reports posted the scheduled meetings and presented issues and agreements to be designed. But reports took their cues from prominent personalities who spoke of these topics, with little connection to discussions among policy communities in the Philippines.

The press made much of the “very warm and very friendly” meeting between US President Donald Trump and President Duterte. Reports also noted the reaffirmation of strong US-PH ties, Trump’s pitch to mediate in the territorial dispute issue, as well as the silence of the two on contentious human rights issues.

On major issues not only for the Philippines but also for the ASEAN community, much could have been done to flesh out details on hot topics such as disputed waters of the South China Sea (SCS), the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the nuclear threat of North Korea, and the rise of new terror threats in the region.

It was obvious that the media had been kept out of the meetings with little by way of daily briefings or informed backgrounders from insiders from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

In a social media post on November 15, a veteran journalist lamented the lack of press briefings for journalists covering the ASEAN meetings, which he recalled was a routine procedure during the term of then Foreign Affairs Undersecretary and ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino. An American journalist covering the summit also told the Inquirer how “it would have been better if the media was given more access to the delegations, meetings and related documents for a much better coverage.” (“Foreign press on Asean confab in Manila” Professionally done, but…”)

Without the valuable insights from attending leaders and delegates, who could have added perspective and views from around the world and region to certain issues, coverage relied on statements by officials and documents such as the official Chairman’s Statement of the 31st ASEAN Summit.

On the SCS issue, media reports picked up President Duterte’s statements as well as pronouncements by Chinese officials on the matter, which downplayed the issue of Duterte’s soft stance on China. Referring to the Chairman’s Statement, reports noted that while it hailed the adoption of a framework on the Code of Conduct (COC) on the SCS, it failed to explicitly call out China for its militarization of the disputed waters.

With the exception of a few, the Rohingya crisis received minimal attention from the local media despite being a grave humanitarian concern in the ASEAN community. The following looked into the silence of the regional body on the matter:

Perhaps because of the lack of substantive briefings, media fed on other side events: the welcoming of guests, security measures for the summit, protest actions against US President Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to a local fast food chain and a women’s center in Tondo, Manila. Media also picked up public gaffes such as a pro-Duterte blogger’s confrontation with a BBC correspondent, actress Maria Isabel Lopez’s ASEAN lane violation, and President Trump’s confusion with the ASEAN handshake, as well as other trivial matters such as Duterte’s top aide Bong Go’s selfies, but these were not played up in the coverage.


CMFR cheers efforts to expand the discourse on the South China Sea issue—a topic which was not directly discussed in the ASEAN meetings.

ANC’s Early Edition hosted by Christian Esguerra sought the views of former Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia Jr. and former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez in an interview on November 15 and 16, respectively. Both lamented the Philippines’ lost opportunities to forward its position on the territorial issue given the country’s unique position as the ASEAN’s chairman. By failing to raise the arbitral ruling during the discussions, the Philippines lost its chances to get the “support of ASEAN countries to get China to respect the rule of law and respect international law,” Cuisia said. Golez, for his part, emphasized that the government must “take firm action very soon” on the arbitration ruling to avoid being interpreted as having “defaulted” on its claims.

Rappler’s “ASEAN 2017: A wasted opportunity for the West Philippine Sea” also sought the opinion of experts, which echoed Cuisia’s and Golez’s observations. Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) executive director Gregory Poling told Rappler that the ASEAN chairmanship was a “missed opportunity” and that it “weakened ASEAN’s standing on political-security matters.” Poling also emphasized the need for a legally binding COC, although he doesn’t see it coming at least in the next 10 years, pointing out that “it’s only the Philippines and the Southeast Asian claimants that are restraining themselves.” What the Chinese want, Poling said, “is a vague document of principles that doesn’t really restrain their activities in any way.”

In his assessment, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Roberto Romulo said it is “unfair” to blame the Philippines alone for the ASEAN’s performance, but scored the Philippines chairmanship for setting aside the Hague tribunal decision, calling it “extremely disappointing.”

For his part, UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea Director Atty. Jay Batongbacal said the regional bloc has been “accommodating too much” and stressed the need for the ASEAN to discuss the implications of the Hague ruling. Batongbacal also called the start of COC negotiations a “mountain out of a molehill,” pointing out that without a specific date or venue for the talks, “it’s nothing” and is merely “some kind of procedural agreement.”

Cheers also to several news organizations for their efforts to consolidate their coverage for easy access and for summarizing key developments during the summit.

A dedicated webpage by the Inquirer and GMA News Online contained relevant reports, while PhilStar.com included a live blog in addition to links to news articles. For its part, Rappler offered a wide variety of content, ranging from news reports, videos, live updates and public advisories to special reports. ABS-CBN News Online did not have a dedicated webpage but a quick link in its home page redirects readers to a list of relevant content.

Summaries of important developments also help the public get a quick glance of achievements gained during the ASEAN meet.

CNN Philippines’ online news report “What Filipinos got from the ASEAN Summit,” PhilStar.com’s “LIST: Agreements, vows made with the Philippines on ASEAN sidelines,” and TV Patrol’s “ALAMIN: Mga kasunduang nabuo sa ASEAN 2017” gave a straightforward summary of key topics discussed and achievements gained during the summit. VERA Files’ “‘Realistically constructive’ statement on the South China Sea” followed a similar approach, although it initially focused on the South China Sea issue. Rappler’s “What #ASEAN2017 accomplished: How much do they matter?” also provided a quick summary. In addition, Rappler included a “verdict” (low impact, some impact, high impact), followed by a brief analysis for explanation.