WPS issue in the SONA: Duterte’s erroneous claims go unchecked
A PRE-STATE of the Nation Address (SONA) survey of Pulse Asia found that most Filipinos wanted President Rodrigo Duterte to talk about Philippines-China relations. It ranked fourth in their preferred topics — after salaries, high prices and jobs.
Amid continuing criticism of his China policy, Duterte himself told reporters he would “educate” the public on this issue, particularly about the basis of his position on the West Philippine Sea (WPS). However, Duterte on July 22 read no more than one paragraph from his prepared speech before going off-script and resorting to his usual, defeatist rhetoric about dealing with China.
Duterte repeated points he had made in the past and the media simply recorded his statements verbatim, as has been the custom of reporters. Given the significance of the SONA and the widespread interest in the issue of the WPS, these statements called for analysis. Reporters should have prepared to present with more context, alerting possible sources so they could be called on to explain or to evaluate Duterte’s claims.
But for the first time, the president spoke about the basis of his personal agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping allowing China to fish in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – which initial reports merely quoted.
CMFR monitored the coverage of three Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), six news programs (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, CNN Philippines’ News Night, TV5’s Aksyon, GMA News TV’s State of the Nation with Jessica Soho and ANC’s The World Tonight) and selected online news sites from July 22 to 25.
Confusion among the cabinet
Following up on July 23 and 24, media focused on the confusion about the term Duterte used in describing China’s presence in the West Philippine Sea. Did the president say China was “in possession” of, or “in position” in Philippine waters? Media reports picked up the explanation given by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon in a post-SONA press conference. He said Duterte meant China was “in position” in the WPS. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana agreed.
But both were contradicted by Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, who said Duterte did mean China was “in possession.”
The coverage, while citing the exchange of quotes, did not point out why it was important to clarify what the president was saying. Justice Antonio Carpio pointed out in a report on The World Tonight last July 24 that if China were in possession of the WPS, the AFP failed to protect the state, an assessment that the military would not accept.
Clearly, both Esperon and Lorenzana, never mind Panelo, tried to save the situation for the president and the media picked up what seemed a mere quibble about words, lacking the curiosity that journalists should have about the interpretation of terms used by no less than the president himself.
The issue sidelined the need to correct the more glaring errors or misleading statements of the president. The corrections were provided by experts who either issued statements or spoke to the media, but these came one to two days later. Those listening to the president may not have picked up on the points that needed follow-up.
- He allowed Chinese vessels to fish in the EEZ because they can exercise traditional fishing rights, claiming that the arbitration ruling itself allows this.
Carpio, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales said the ruling held that traditional fishing rights do not apply in the EEZ. These are “extinguished” in such location, according to the arbitration ruling. Furthermore, all three experts added that the Philippine Constitution specifically reserves the use of the resources in the EEZ to Filipinos.
- The Philippines lost “Spratly and Panganiban (Reef)” in the 2012 Panatag Shoal standoff with the retreat of the Philippine Navy, causing the increase of Chinese vessels in the area.
Social media accounts of Philstar.com and VERA Files were quick to point out that Panatag Shoal is entirely different from the Spratly group of islands, where Panganiban Reef belongs. Media reports failed to point this out themselves, and allowed Duterte’s confusion over the three locations.
In The World Tonight report, Carpio fact-checked the president and said that China seized Panganiban Reef way back in 1995, being one of the many instances of China’s gradual and creeping expansion.
Duterte’s apparent confusion over what’s true or false is neither new nor surprising. By now, the media should know better than merely echo what the president and his officials say. The coverage of the WPS issue in the SONA underscored much of the media’s failure to readily challenge the presidential spin.