Duterte’s health, again: Few reports show improvement
SPECULATIONS ABOUT the president’s health won’t be quelled so easily, especially when Duterte himself is suddenly and unwontedly fueling them.
Following the rumors last week that he had flown to Singapore on a med-evac plane for treatment, media broke the news on their social media accounts on Tuesday night, August 25 that the disease Barrett’s esophagus afflicting the president has been diagnosed as “nearing stage one cancer.”
The source was no other than the president himself, during a taped address aired Tuesday morning thru PTV-4, and which was carried by other media. Duterte was rambling about fighting corruption when he shifted to talking about retirement and his doctor’s advice to change his diet and the latter’s diagnosis of his worsening Barrett’s esophagus ailment.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque complained that the public gave “too much meaning” to the president’s words, insisting that Duterte is fit and healthy for his age. He clarified on CNN Philippines’ August 26 edition of The Source that this diagnosis was an old one, made prior to the presidency, “when the president was still drinking.”
Media accounts picked up Roque’s clarification, sustaining the official narrative that the president is healthy for a man of his age. These reports did not mention Duterte’s frequent absences when the Palace could not account for his whereabouts. Only a few reports provided context about the need to inform the people about the president’s state of health.
CMFR monitored the coverage of six Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Bulletin, The Philippine Star, Daily Tribune, Manila Standard, The Manila Times), four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s One Balita Pilipinas and CNN Philippines’ News Night), the online counterparts of these broadsheets and channels, and independent online news sites Rappler and Interaksyon from August 26 to 27.
The Manila Bulletin did not pick up the story about the diagnosis. The other papers merely carried Roque’s clarification, describing Barrett’s esophagus and listing other ailments that Duterte himself said he has. Media also quoted Bong Go, who has continued to act as a close-in aide to the president despite his seat in the Senate, as saying the president is “stronger than a carabao.”
Only the Inquirer mentioned that the Constitution requires public disclosure of any serious illness suffered by the Philippine president. More to the point, a Tribune account noted that despite his many claims of illness, neither Duterte nor Malacañang has released a medical bulletin on the president’s health or his ailments.
TV coverage was similar, airing clips of Roque’s interview. 24 Oras aired footage of Duterte speaking in a public forum in October 2018, saying he had resumed drinking because he could not help it; that his endoscopy and colonoscopy showed negative for cancer. It was one of the occasions when he told the media that his health condition was “not for public consumption.” Rappler’s report was on the same track, recalling Duterte’s admission that he was a “brandy boy” who drank before bed.
Interaksyon was exceptional in including the context of the constitutional provisions on the subject, noting that these do not specify what qualifies as a “serious illness.” The report pointed out that “despite the severity” of Barrett’s esophagus, the Palace has never issued a medical bulletin on this or other issues about the president’s state of health. Interaksyon posted the only account referring to a petition filed before the Supreme Court to disclose Duterte’s health conditions, and which the court junked in May.
Media coverage however failed to stress the other factor that makes the issue of the president’s health a public concern — the frequency of his absences which on occasion had lasted as long as 7 days, as the Inquirer noted in a July 2019 report. In the last two weeks, the president was invisible more days than he was seen or heard.
The press plays a critical role not only in providing news about the president’s health. They need to note the very serious question of who will take over in case of the president’s incapacity to hold office. These are all in the Constitution, which describes the steps to be taken by officials in the Cabinet and in Congress should that happen. The president may be well enough to finish his term. But it is the responsibility of the press to keep the public informed about the imperative of a peaceful and orderly transition should it be necessary. Unfortunately, that particular issue has not even been mentioned in any media account on the state of Duterte’s health.