Duterte in Beijing Again: Little Info, Less Analysis
FOLLOWING THE magnitude 6.1 earthquake that rocked parts of Luzon and Visayas, President Rodrigo Duterte’s attendance in the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing from April 25 to 27 did not generate too much media attention, and for that reason, the visit did not hold much public interest.
The president’s fourth visit to China since assuming office, the event took place amidst much controversy involving Duterte’s most favored foreign country. Weeks before, news accounts had called attention to Chinese vessels’ harvesting giant clams from Scarborough Shoal and the presence of Chinese militia around Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys. Earlier this year, critics had flagged the Chinese loan agreement for the New Centennial Water Resource Project for what they said were onerous provisions.
These issues should have prompted more critical inquiry and analysis in the press coverage, about China’s global initiative to provide funding for, among other things, international connectivity, including ports, highways and railway infrastructure.
The event was not reported any differently from other foreign trips made by Duterte: focusing mainly on official statements. It was “he said, she said” reporting as usual and citing only a few sources. There was minimal interpretation of the significance of the gathering.
CMFR monitored the coverage of three broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon, CNN Philippines’ News Night) and selected online news sites from April 22 to 30.
The news accounts prior to Duterte’s visit suggested that the longstanding conflict in the South China Sea could be part of the agenda of the discussions between Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping. This bilateral discussion took place on April 24, a day before the Belt and Road Forum.
As such meetings are always closed to the public, reports relied as usual on quotes and statements from the president, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo and Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana. They summed up the discussions simply by assuring the media audience that the maritime dispute issue had been raised, and that a bilateral approach will be used in addressing longstanding concerns between the Philippines and China. Also quoted were Xi’s statements reaffirming the ties between the two countries.
Curiously, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin, Jr. was absent in the news coverage. Reports did not say whether he was in Beijing or not. Before and after Duterte’s trip, some online reports did mention him, but only referred to his tweets concerning the issue of giant clams.
Only a few reports observed the government’s apparent refusal to disclose more information, which would have either supported or belied officials’ claims. 24 Oras noted that half a day after the talks and with no explanation for this delay, Panelo still had not provided details on the bilateral discussions. TV Patrol reported that the media were not given copies of the transcript of Duterte’s speech, and that the bilateral meeting lasted no more than mere minutes.
The Inquirer, meanwhile, said that neither Duterte nor Xi acknowledged the tension in the West Philippine Sea in their respective opening statements before the talks. TV Patrol noted that Xi did not give any indication that Beijing would pull out its vessels in Pag-asa Island.
Only the Star raised the fact that despite previous meetings and agreements, China “has not stopped being aggressive in the South China Sea.” The same report said five days after the Beijing visit, Malacanang was still waiting for Beijing’s response to the diplomatic protests that the Philippines had filed concerning Chinese intrusions in the West Philippine Sea.
Indeed, the Belt and Road Forum was the main event in Duterte’s trip, the bilateral talks happening only on the sidelines of this gathering. Yet the coverage had little to say about China’s grand show of economic resources and the significance of this to the world order. Filipino journalists covering the international event did not present the views of other international delegates and did not note the leaders who graced the occasion. The press could have checked how the Belt and Road initiative was seen in different countries. Not all the media connected the event to China’s role in the Duterte administration’s much vaunted Build, Build, Build program. With the exception of 24 Oras, Star and Inquirer, reports did not explain what the forum was about and how China has moved forward with its global infrastructure plan.
An online report by ABS-CBN recalled that Duterte’s three previous trips to China had supposedly gained for the Philippines more than $24 billion in Chinese investment pledges and loans. “But the Philippines is still waiting for China to deliver on its promises,” the report said.
The reports did not take note of the $12.2 billion worth of trade and investment deals that Filipino officials and businessmen signed during the Belt and Road Forum. The Star, Bulletin, cnnphilippines.com, news.ABS-CBN.com and Rappler listed the agreements, as well as the signatories. But the news carried no extensive discussion of these deals. The media did not clarify whether copies of the signed documents had been made available to them.
Only a month ago, Duterte ordered a review of all contracts that the Philippine government had signed with private companies and other countries. The media have not looked into the progress of this task, and whether the newly-signed deals would be subject to the same scrutiny.
The increasing Chinese influence over the country requires media to provide more interpretive and contextualized reportage that present these stories as reflecting developments that may impact negatively on Philippine sovereignty, the national economy and general public interest.