MIA again: Duterte “at home” during 2020’s strongest typhoon
CRITICS ON social media were quick to call out the president’s conspicuous absence in government’s response to Super Typhoon Rolly. The world’s strongest tropical cyclone this year ravaged Southern Luzon and the Bicol region last Sunday, November 1, triggering flooding, landslides and lahar flows, destroying thousands of houses and killing at least 22 people.
President Rodrigo Duterte skipped the televised press conference held on the same day when officials discussed plans for the government response. Media reports also noted that by the time officials had addressed the nation at 10 a.m., Rolly had already made landfall twice – in Bato, Catanduanes at 4:50 a.m., then in Tiwi, Albay, at 7:20 a.m.
During the week, netizens were already asking about the president’s whereabouts. His absence during the government briefing prompted #NasaanAngPangulo to trend on Twitter. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a press briefing that the chief executive was in Davao City “closely monitoring” the situation.
The president got back at his critics on November 2 with a sarcastic allusion to the controversial crushed dolomite beach in Manila Bay: “Do you want me to stand doon sa white sand ni [Environment Secretary] Roy Cimatu just to see that I am here?”
On the same day Roque added further that the president could not travel to Manila earlier because of the typhoon; he insisted that the president was not missing in action.
While media accounts called attention to the problematic press briefing, most reports let Roque’s excuse pass without even asking why the president had not been heard from even as news of the approaching storm raised fear and alarm. Surely, the president could have addressed the public from his home in Davao.
While monitored news accounts did record public criticism of Duterte’s absence, media seemed satisfied with the Palace’s defense that he was monitoring the situation from Davao. Only a few reports pointed out the president’s perennial absenteeism or discussed the importance of his visibility in times of crisis.
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 Frontline Pilipinas); as well as selected news websites from November 1 to November 5, 2020.
In an attempt to defend the the tardiness of the Palace-led briefing on the super typhoon, Roque had this to say: “Sa totoo lang po, araw ng Linggo po ‘yun.” “Ang tanong po, bakit lang kahapon? Kasi kahapon naman po pumasok ‘yung bagyo ‘no,” he added later on.
Reports did not point out the obvious — that Rolly had entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR) three days earlier on October 29 and was already described by PAGASA as “nearing supertyphoon category” as early as October 30.
Several news organizations including Philstar.com and Rappler, recalled the origin of #NasaanAngPangulo, a hashtag that first trended in light of the absence of former President Benigno Aquino III during ceremonies to honor the remains of the Mamasapano 44 in 2015. However, Rappler recalled that Aquino did brief the public through a televised speech on the eve of Yolanda in 2013, before the supertyphoon made landfall.
Some news accounts also pointed to the inconsistencies between presidential words and actions.
A report by Philstar.com recalled Duterte’s statement during a COVID-19 briefing in August when he said that a true leader is someone who always “stays where the crisis is.”
Interaksyon referred to the “PR campaign” when Duterte reportedly turned over PHP 8 million worth of relief goods and equipment to Tacloban in 2013. Citing tweets from several netizens, Interaksyon noted the irony that he could do so little now with all the resources at his disposal.
But much of the media did not connect this stark example of an absent president to a pattern in the president’s conduct that has marred much of his term— more so during 2020.
Much of media were unable to delve into how Duterte’s absence reflects on the quality of his leadership. While media did report #NasaanAngPangulo, most skimped the crucial question of why knowledge of the president’s whereabouts in a crisis is so important to the public.