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Media an echo chamber for official chorus on Duterte's health | CMFR

Media an echo chamber for official chorus on Duterte’s health

Photo from Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go’s Facebook account.

IT WAS netizens rather than the media who pieced together seemingly unrelated events that led to rumors about  President Rodrigo Duterte’s whereabouts and his health.

Online speculation was triggered by a Facebook post from user Josef Leroi Garcia on Sunday morning, August 16, about a medical plane from Singapore that supposedly landed in Davao City where the president had been staying since August 3. While the original post did not mention the president, talk on social media and chat groups presumed that the plane was for his use.

Some netizens were quick to connect this to DILG Sec. Eduardo Año’s earlier announcement that he had tested positive for COVID-19 for the second time on August 15.

On Monday, August 17, two posts on social media supported the idea that all was not well. On the same day, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque denied that the president had left the country. Roque then made the cryptic remark that Duterte was in “perpetual isolation” as well as being tested regularly for the virus.

A bizarre clip of a seemingly distraught DFA SecretaryTeodoro Locsin Jr. fueled further talk. It showed Locsin onstage addressing repatriated Filipino workers from Lebanon.  Praising Duterte as the most caring president, Locsin said, “Thank you for the honor of serving you” leaving the podium as though he had been overcome by emotion.

Later that same day, Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, his former presidential aide, released the “proof of life” photo, this time showing the president at a meal with his family in the kitchen area of their home in Davao. To let everyone know he was alive and in the country, Duterte addressed the public at the usual Monday briefing which began typically close to midnight. There were those who noted that he did not look well. In a video posted by Go prior to his address, the president’s left eye drooped. It may have established proof of life, but Duterte’s appearance during the address only cemented concerns about his health.

While media did note that the president’s last public appearance was a televised cabinet meeting on August 10, no one asked why he had been absent from the public eye for almost one whole week, or even to recall his habit of vanishing for days without anyone informing the public about his whereabouts. The missing context was offensive, a much too ready dismissal of journalistic skepticism and public concern.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from August 16 to August 20, 2020.

Some reports and op-ed pieces stood out for highlighting the importance of disclosing the president’s health records, and diverging from the government’s narrative.

An Urgent Issue

Reports from Inquirer.net, the Manila Bulletin and GMA News Online provided context by recalling that the appeal filed before the Supreme Court by lawyer Dino de Leon asking for full public disclosure of the President’s health records had been denied by the Court last May. De Leon filed a motion for reconsideration last July, correctly stressing that the state of the president’s health is of  “transcendental importance” to the nation. Following speculations on Duterte’s alleged flight to Singapore, De Leon is asking the high court to decide on his appeal given the urgency of the issue.

Indeed the state of the president’s health is crucial, particularly since in past declarations, Duterte has said that he has at times thought of resigning, but would prefer someone other than Vice President Leni Robredo to succeed him despite what the Constitution says about the line of succession. Knowing the exact state of Duterte’s health would enable the nation to prepare for the imperative of following the Constitution should he be unable to discharge his duties.


Meanwhile, providing a comprehensive timeline in her column for Vera Files, journalist Ellen Tordesillas looked into the administration’s conflicting claims.

Tordesillas pointed out a rather obvious observation that most reports missed–Go’s photo belied Roque’s “perpetual isolation” scenario. A baby at the table suggested there were maybe other people allowed to visit the president.

Citing the president‘s exact words, Tordesillas pointed out that the president did not categorically deny going on the trip, noting that he only insisted on his right to go anywhere he wants, “Hindi ko itinatago. Bakit ko taguin? Hindi naman ako kagaya ng iba salbahis na maggamit ng pera ninyo. At bakit isikreto ko? I am under no obligation to travel in secret and not telling the Republic at all.” 

Interaksyon cited the views of other personalities. Florin Hilbay, former solicitor-general said, “Perpetual isolation’ in the midst of a pandemic is an incapacity to perform the functions of the office. A true leader will not selfishly hide while the nation is suffering.” The report also cited Philip Lustre Jr. who suggested that Vice President Leni Robredo should be prepared to take her oath of office.

The government’s lack of transparency about the president’s health is an issue that has plagued the media as soon as Duterte took office. All their inquiries have been answered only by the presidential spokesperson, Roque, and Bong Go, who was his aide and now even as a member of the Senate, and other information officials.

But the rumors that arose from the med-evac plane parked at Davao City’s airport terminal all but demonstrated the failure of the media to press their legitimate suit for expert information on the president’s health. It is a shame that the press community may not be in agreement about the urgency of this issue. Too many reporters are happy enough to simply repeat what they are told, even when those talking have no medical expertise nor are privy to medical assessments of the president’s health. And too many media owners are afraid of the consequences should any journalist under their employ dare to investigate more closely a profoundly important issue to the nation. This question of health bears with it the more important question of the chief executive’s  capacity to lead and to govern, especially in times of crisis, when these can make a vital difference in determining the national fate.  In the time of Duterte, it also raises the question of whether the military and civilian bureaucracies he has surrounded himself with and who have benefited from it will support the Constitutional provisions on the line of succession.