Spin Doctors In, Medical Doctors Out: The Duterte Health Watch

Photo from former Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go’s Facebook page

PRESIDENTIAL SPOKESPERSON Salvador Panelo neither confirmed nor denied reports that President Rodrigo Duterte was hospitalized during the period of his absence in late May. “You draw your own conclusions,” Panelo said at a press briefing on May 20, reducing the critical issue of the chief executive’s health to a mere guessing game.

Social media had swirled with rumors about the president being rushed to the hospital, as having suffered cardiac arrest. The Malacañang press corps asked Panelo directly and its this response which was reported first by news organizations. There was little evidence to show that reporters attempted to track the rumors to a source; nor to check and verify with hospitals and doctors.

Back in August 2018, media reacted to rumors about the president falling into a coma with persistent inquiries into the president’s health. Reporters pointed to the need for medical information from the president’s physicians and other authoritative sources. The administration ignored these requests then and the issue of the president’s health has since been relegated to public speculation.

Media’s persistence in asking for medical bulletins or official statements from credible officials is not just a pesky habit. Journalists are obliged to check the veracity of rumors about the president’s health. When the president is absent for a number of days and Malacañang fails to explain the reason, then the media must use its resources to try and find authoritative sources, piece together and corroborate information from hospitals and the medical community. The media should alert the public about the lack of information on the president’s capacity to fulfill his duties as chief executive in line with the constitutional provision about any serious illness afflicting the president.

It would seem then that the media has failed to investigate the issue, while faithfully recording the spin from public officials and leaving the matter to the rumor mills. The media can also take reporting on another level by keeping track of the number of incidents when the administration did not explain the president’s absence from his day to day duties. The media however did not shirk from showing the president unable to keep up with the ceremonial duties of the office, as he failed to keep standing during the graduation rites of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).

The government’s spin doctors have successfully stonewalled on this issue, refusing to give any answers, waiting for the media to lose interest in the president’s health, and moving on to more current developments.

CMFR monitored the reporting of the Manila broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, and Manila Bulletin), primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon, and CNN Philippines’ News Night) and selected cable news programs and news websites from May 19 to 31, 2019.

Sleepy” president

Coverage of the president’s appearance at the graduation rites of the PMA showed the president as visibly weak, unable to stand and hand out diplomas to the graduates. He arrived about two hours late and needed to be assisted as he approached the stage. Television carried enough evidence to raise more questions. Unfortunately, these were not forthcoming.

Unlike most reports, InterAksyon did not stop at just showing his ill appearance. It recalled Duterte’s previous absences from office. The report referred to the president’s absence during Typhoon Karding in August 2018 which prompted the #NasaanAngPangulo hashtag to trend; his failure to attend several important meetings at the Asia-Pacific Summit held in Singapore in November 2018, and the most recent three-day absence in February 2019.

A Philstar.com report also pointed out that the president was not seen publicly, without explanation in past periods, from June 12 to 16, 2017; from June 20 to 26 in the same year; and from April 29 to May 4 this year.

The Spin Doctors

Some reports did cite Section 12, Article VII of the 1987 Constitution which mandates transparency about the president’s health. Media however has not held administration officials to their constitutional obligation: “In case of serious illness of the President, the public shall be informed of the state of his health.”

Instead, administration officials have successfully warded off health inquiries; and most of the media have been willing to take the government spin, reporting what officials said without any attempt to verify what is said.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra emphasized the president’s right to privacy. “If the illness is not serious enough to affect the discharge of his official functions, the President has no duty to inform anyone. Like any citizen, the President enjoys the right to privacy under the Constitution,” Guevarra said. These were reported without question.

On May 27, Panelo once again came to the president’s defense and allayed fears about his health, offering the rather lame explanation that the president was not weak during the PMA graduation, only “sleepy.” “He was sleepy because the day before he was working. I think he had only less than two hours of sleep,” Panelo told CNN Philippines.

Missing Medical Bulletin

If the president is without any serious ailment, then why can’t the administration just issue an official medical bulletin–something they have been denying the public on the grounds that he is “not seriously ill?”

And if the president is in fact, healthy, then the administration all the more needs to explain his absences. As former Solicitor-General Florin “Pilo” Hilbay pointed out in a personal tweet, “A public officer who is commander-in-chief and chief executive has a greater obligation than [to] just prove he’s still alive.” It is a matter requiring investigative reporting skills, which quite clearly the media have so far lacked.