Corroboration, corroboration, corroboration!
IN DECEMBER 2017, media reported the unceremonious firing of Vice Admiral Ronald Mercado as Navy Chief due to “insubordination.” According to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana: “As the Secretary of Defense, I have lost trust and confidence in his integrity and leadership. I question his intention behind his fixation with one specific company for the combat management system (CMS) of the frigate acquisition project.” (“Lorenzana accuses relieved Navy chief of insubordination”)
News in January suggested there was more to the story.
On January 15, Inquirer.net ran the story “Palace had special interest in Navy’s selection of weapons system supplier”reporting on an unsigned two-page white paper assailing a CMS supplier in favor of another. The report described the first page as having a marginal note signed by Lorenzana dated January 12, 2017.The note instructed Mercado, still Navy Chief at the time, that the document was given to him by Bong Go, the Special Assistant to President Duterte, that Mercado should go over it and prepare a report/rebuttal to be submitted to the president.
The report also said Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao had sent a letter to then Commodore Robert Empedrad, chairman of the Navy Frigate Project Technical Working Group asking Empedrad to attend a meeting in the Palace on January 20, 2017, to discuss CMS selection. Lao was then an undersecretary in the Office of the Special Assistant to the President.
Rappler ran two reports, “Bong Go intervenes in P15.5-B project to acquire PH warships” and “Ousted PH Navy chief wanted ‘proven technology’ for warships,” on January 16 and 19 respectively, reporting on the same documents the Inquirer did, showing images of the white paper. The reports provided the needed background: the PHP15.7 billion warship program or the Frigate Acquisition Project (FAP) of the Philippine Navy which is part of the modernization scheme initiated during the Aquino administration for theArmed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) won the bid to build two ships for the Navy. The contract was signed in 2016 but the project was stalled due to disagreements about which supplier would provide the CMS. HHI wanted Hanhwa Systems to install CMS of while then Philippine Navy Chief Vice Admiral Ronald Mercado expressed for the Navy’s preference for Tacticos Thales.
Only Inquirer and Rappler reported the story.
On Tuesday, January 16, Go released a statement to reporters denying any involvement in the case. (“Bong Go denies intervening in navy selection of weapons system supplier”) Speaking to reporters the following day, Lorenzana said he had wrongly assumed that the document came from Go and that he could not remember who gave it to him. Lorenzana also said the white paper came from Hanwha, a supplier of CMS. (“Lorenzana” White paper came from Malacañang, not Bong Go”)
In a statement released to the press on January 17, the Department of National Defense (DND) said: “There was neither hint nor guidance from the Palace or from Secretary Bong Go to influence the implementation of the project.” Mercado, already out of office, also spoke out, clearing Go’s involvement. (“Sacked Navy chief denies Bong Go intervened in warship deal”)
Actually, the reports which broke the news should have been supported with more verification. White papers in themselves can serve as excellent leads but media should always corroborate the story such documents hold by other sources. Reporters should have gone to Lorenzana to ask him further about the controversy hounding the procurement of the CMS which he had talked about openly. If he denied then that it was sent by any Palace official, then they could have simply carried the story anyway with Lorenzana’s clarification. It would have validly raised the possibility that some officials had an interest in which supplier was favored by the Navy.
Lorenzana’s admission that he was mistaken invited skepticism and should have also triggered more questions, whether or not these were satisfactorily answered. The process of corroboration would have involved asking more probing questions about the whole procurement process. Lorenzana did not deny that he had written the marginal note. These kinds of assertions are not carelessly made by officials. The press should have asked: When did the DND chief find out that it was not Bong Go who had sent over the document? How did he know that the unsigned white paper came from Hanwha Systems? They should have asked about the reasons one supplier of a CMS is preferable to another.
CMFR counted a total of nine (9) reports in the three leading broadsheets from January 17 to 22. Of this number, the Inquirer and The Philippine Star each had four. Reports on TV also started airing by January 17. Combined, primetime newscasts TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2), 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), and News Night (CNN Philippines) ran five stories on various related developments: Duterte’s reaction, Go, Lorenzana and DND’s denial, and the Senate’s looming investigation on the matter.
Reports in print and TV followed the same narrative arc: documents pointing to possible intervention, denial of key persons involved and the Senate’s expressed intent to look into it.
None of the above answered the key question: Who really sent the white paper to the DND Secretary?
Establishing the source independently, journalists should have asked Hanwah Systems or HHI if it produced the white paper. Investigative reporters would have searched out the original bid to see if the white paper was based on it. Explanatory reports would have helped the public to understand the procurement process, a subject which has many experts, both among the CSOs and government offices involved in promoting government transparency and accountability.
But there was little interest to use this timely opportunity to provide more information about how corruption and influence peddling shapes the practice of government procurement.
In a January 18 report, Rappler, based on information from former Usec Lao, confirmed that the office of Bong Go, had invited Empedrad to discuss the selection of the CMS supplier, that HHI, not Hanwa Systems, was the source of the white paper, described by Lao as a “complaint,” and that they referred the same to DND. Lao said inviting Empedrad was a “usual course of action” done by their office as they had to act on the complaints. Lao, the report said, was no longer with the office of Bong Go, but was a commissioner in the House and Land Use Regulatory Board.(“Undersecretary in Bong Go’s office confirms letter on frigate deal”)
Rappler could have improved on this report if it had asked about the denial. If this was SOP, why the scramble to deny? Lao’s explanation directly contradicted the denial issued by the DND. It also showed up the clarification of Lorenzana as inaccurate.
More telling, the report provoked the President’s anger, who singled-out Rappler during a briefing on January 16, calling the organization a “fake news outlet.” He also challenged the organization to prove that Go intervened and that he will immediately fire him.
This will probably be the end of a media probe. Rappler found someone who was working then in the Palace to admit the role of the office of Bong Go, the propriety or integrity of which the public will hopefully be able to judge for themselves.
Leaked documents that point to questionable activities in government reflect some level of discomfort in the bureaucracy about what is going on. These should be treated as leads, which should prod the media to investigate further, seeking more sources to verify the accuracy and authenticity of the “leak.”
The Senate has scheduled a hearing in March. The press will be left to track the official lines; when it could have established its own independent probe.