The life and death of a crusader: The Ghost Of Dong Batul

By Yasmin D. Arquiza

Despite his vehement denials, Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn is still haunted by the suspicion that he had something to do with the assassination of popular Palawan broadcaster Fernando “Dong” Batul.
While it is true that Batul offended many people—politicians, military officials, rival radio commentators, etc.—most of his scathing remarks were directed against alleged anomalies in the mayor’s administration. From questionable transactions to land deals and waste of funds, Batul’s muckraking skills drew a different picture about the quality of governance in the much-awarded city.
Batul was not the first radio commentator in Palawan who gained popularity for his bombastic style, or to have received threats because of his commentaries. The station where he worked at the time of his death, dyPR, once had to hire a security guard to keep angry listeners from attacking a senior radio commentator.
However, Batul’s appeal was phenomenal as he managed to capture a loyal following, from his evening radio program at dySP to his block-time programs and later, a prime-time slot at dyPR. After his dySP stint, he was elected vice mayor in 2001 on the strength of his radio following. Such was his appeal that he had to speak last instead of the mayoral candidate during their campaign sorties, as people were waiting just to see and listen to him.
Popularity, charisma, and media savvy were traits that Batul shared with Hagedorn, who was 23 years older. Both were captivating speakers, glib and fast on the repartee whenever they clashed on the radio. However, their personal backgrounds and moral values are worlds apart, marking their divergent paths and viewpoints.
Hagedorn’s colorful past has been immortalized in a film starring no less than Fernando Poe Jr. Batul was not given to such self-promotion, but his leadership qualities and entrepreneurial spirit were widely recognized in the community. He was active in youth and civic groups since college, as well as church groups such as the Singles for Christ. His fiery idealism at a young age once resulted in a libel suit arising from an article he wrote in a newsletter about a town mayor in southern Palawan.
Fresh out of college, Batul started his service in government at about the same time that Hagedorn became mayor. Hence, he became familiar with government procedures, knowledge that he parlayed into advocacy for good governance when he started his media career. He often exposed irregularities in various agencies, but because anomalies in the capital city were the most glaring in Palawan, it became a target of his campaign for political reform.
One of his mantras in his radio program was to reject the government line that there was no money for public services; instead, he kept saying that most of the time, officials simply wasted funds on frivolous projects. One such project that he strongly criticized was the city government’s purchase of a helicopter that was never used for its avowed goal of environmental protection.
In contrast to the mayor’s penchant for dole-outs, Batul encouraged people to be self-sufficient and to work hard for a living. Whenever the mayor was in town, long queues would form wherever he would go—people begging for funds to pay medical expenses, as well as those who just needed money to pay their rent or electric bills. Hagedorn’s generosity was legendary, and indeed, many people say he was known for helping people especially for medical emergencies.
Batul was critical of this practice. Whenever someone asked him for medical help, he would inquire with the hospital first if the assistance needed was real or imaginary. After all, some people in the city had gained notoriety for hopping from one office to another with recycled medical receipts. Unlike the mayor who seemed to have very deep pockets, however, Batul would solicit support from other listeners for the needy constituents of the city. The self-help system was a repudiation of the patronage system that Hagedorn encouraged, but it was just as successful in gaining adherents for Batul.
Many residents in Palawan have the tendency to be complacent, perhaps because of the laidback lifestyle in the island paradise. Despite glaring anomalies in government and other controversies, most people go about their daily business and pay no heed to sickening realities in their midst. This is the kind of complacency that allowed most people to meekly accept the scandalous recall election against Mayor Dennis Socrates in 2002 that swept Hagedorn back to power, even though the latter had reached his term limit.
A year later, Batul was unseated as vice mayor when the Commission on Elections upheld the election complaint of his rival, the brother-in-law of Hagedorn, even though no one believed the cash-strapped Batul could carry out the cheating allegation of his wealthy opponent.
Socrates and Batul ran again in 2004 but lost miserably against the incumbent Hagedorn and his brother-in-law. After one year, Batul resumed his radio career, this time on the rival station dyPR. Unlike his previous stint, he got a prime-time slot for the first time, and soon, the station soared to the top of the ratings. Also, unlike before when he was a government employee by day and radio commentator by night, he became a full-fledged journalist who devoted his time to chasing news stories and training younger reporters. Hence, at the time he was killed, he was clearly a member of the media, unlike in the past when his political and media persona were mixed.
Among the stories that Batul was pursuing before he died were the alleged illegal recruitment of city laborers for Taiwan, the controversial Kapakanan livelihood project of the city government that did not go to intended beneficiaries, and the role of the mayor’s radio station dyER in dispensing financial assistance from the city government. It is unclear if he was planning to run again in 2007, especially since one of the mayor’s rivals had been courting him avidly, but it is obvious that if he did, his relentless pursuit of the irregularities in Hagedorn’s administration would be to his advantage. He had reached the peak of his power in influencing public opinion, and he finally had the media resources at his disposal to demolish his long-time nemesis. No wonder then that most people in Palawan had only one suspect in mind when Batul was gunned down.
Instead of putting up smokescreens, the mayor should help the police find the mastermind behind Batul’s killing. Only then can he erase the biggest black-eye on his administration and reputation. n

Yasmin Arquiza is editorial director of Bandillo ng Palawan.

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