Reporting Duterte’s three-day break

Screengrab from Rappler.

RODRIGO DUTERTE is not hale and hearty at 74. But he and Palace officials seem to have taken different perspectives in presenting his health problems to the people.

Duterte has admitted to a number of ailments, complaining that he’s tired; that being president is no easy task; and that he wishes to step down.

Not surprisingly, his frequent absences from office and from high profile events during his foreign trips have sparked speculation. More recently he complained about “unbearable pain” from a motorcycle accident, which caused him to cut short his visit to Japan and fueled the rumor mills about his capacity and ability to govern.

But Salvador Panelo, the president’s spokesperson and his former aide, now Senator Bong Go, have been quick to dismiss these profoundly legitimate concerns. They insist repeatedly that Duterte is hardworking; that the load he carries is so great; implying that it would wear out any person, even those younger and of normal health.

So far, Duterte and his officials have shown no inclination to have any of his physicians describe what ailment has caused him to disappear from public view for, by one count, up to seven days.

One would think that an ailing septuagenarian president would deal more openly about the natural limitations that age and health impose. The public would accept necessary adjustments to pace himself and lighten the schedule, allowing him to weigh the demands for his attention, giving priority to those of consequence. Instead, he has shown himself among the most traveled president in recent history, making time for, among the customary condolence visits, the wake of the quarreling Barretto family’s patriarch.

On November 11, the Duterte administration created a problem for themselves in openly announcing that Duterte would “rest” because he was overworked and lacked sleep. This was also upon the “advice of friends and colleagues.” Panelo told the media that the president would be taking a break from November 12 to 14. Responding to one Palace reporter’s question, Panelo said Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea would be the “caretaker” of the government while the president rests.

Given the background, any journalist would ask, “What is going on here?” It would be natural curiosity to have asked whether this had anything to do with his fall from a motorcycle, or related to any of the ailments he has talked about, or any new affliction.

A departure from Malacañang’s usual ambiguity about the president’s whereabouts when off the schedule, the announcement intensified concern about Duterte’s capacity to discharge the responsibilities of the office.

Perhaps the Palace realized they had triggered more damaging speculation. Within hours, Panelo began to back off on the original plan to “rest,” announcing on the same day that Duterte would still work in Davao. In a press briefing a day later, he referred to the decision to rest as a mere kerfuffle—something that just came up in a conversation that Duterte had with Go and Panelo.

Taking a break for most presidents, young or old, is usually done in the open. They hike off to some place regularly as Trump now does to Mar-a-Lago, George Bush to Kennebunkport and John F. Kennedy to Hyannisport. A White House contingent is at hand to keep the chief executive abreast with whatever is going on in Washington and the rest of the world.

Such occasions do not call for an appointment of an officer-in-charge (OIC). Except for trips abroad, the president remains president on duty even when he is on vacation.

CMFR monitored the coverage of the three major Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin) and four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, CNN Philippines’ News Night and TV5’s Aksyon) from November 11 to 13.

Panelo’s announcement seemed to make a fuss about something that had become normal. Duterte is known to spend time in Davao, especially on weekends. His absences had become a kind of norm for his term in office; as the media had been reticent about inquiring into the president’s state of health. After all, Duterte had been irked by earlier queries into his health, and talking heads for the palace had said this was a private matter.

Although the idea of resting had been scrapped, journalists watched closely the president’s schedule on the specified dates when he should have been off, providing the context that made the need to rest a legitimate public issue. Reports recalled with varying focus Duterte’s previous declarations about his illnesses, along with his recent visit to Japan and his tardiness for and absence from scheduled events at the recent ASEAN Summit in Thailand. Reporters also also quoted Panelo’s clarification that the rest was not health-related, and the time would not be used for any medical procedure.

Some news accounts tracked the activities of the president after Panelo’s announcement. The Inquirer, Star, 24 Oras and Aksyon pointed out that before flying home to Davao on November 12, Duterte went to three wakes and met with Nur Misuari, founding chair of the Moro National Liberation Front.

Back off

Panelo was not to have the last say, as media noted every curious shift and cover on the part of the spokesperson.

As reported by Joseph Morong in 24 Oras, Panelo described the decision to take a three-day rest as something that just came up in a conversation. On the ball, Morong noticed that despite this description of the break as a spontaneous and informal thing, Duterte assigned an officer-in-charge (OIC) anyway.

Other reports also noted that Panelo withdrew the announcement mere hours after issuing it, clarifying that the president would be catching up with paperwork in Davao City where there are fewer “distractions.”

Rappler’s account did not miss how Panelo described reports about Duterte going on a break “wrong,” although he himself said the president would be “resting” for three days in Davao. Panelo adding unnecessarily that he was only quoting Go when he made the announcement.

Pia Ranada of Rappler added background on the practice of assigning an OIC, that it has been done many times, but only when the president travels abroad. Ranada said this was the first time a caretaker had been assigned to take over although the president is in the country. She referred to rules in the 1987 Constitution for occasions when the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” but none when the president is “merely taking a rest” – further highlighting the absurdity of Panelo’s remark that the vice president was not appointed OIC because she was busy being drug czar.

Actually, even with such close attention, media have not come any closer to really knowing about the health of the president or the medical treatments he obviously receives. But responding to the news of the president needing “rest,” journalists have showed it could exercise some journalistic muscle to check a ruse. Whatever term Panelo or Go may use to describe it –“rest, break or leave” — these terms do not quite tell the people what the president really needs.

All of this still boils down to the failure of government to involve a medical professional — why not the president’s physician — to brief the people about the state of his health as well as the treatments he is receiving.