A travesty of journalism

The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s front-page photo, October 8, of an agricultural estate in Rosario, Batangas, which disgruntled former vice mayor Ernesto Mercado alleged was owned by Vice President Jejomar Binay, represents a travesty of journalistic principles, and a debasement of one of the most crucial institutions of democracy, the Press.

The photo was obviously primarily meant not to report news, not to make public an allegation against the second-highest official of the land. It was, instead, intended to create outrage against Binay for his alleged hidden wealth, to etch in people’s minds that he owns an estate rivaling those of America’s rich and famous, with a garden more glorious than those in Europe. It was obviously neither for justice nor truth, but to weaken his acceptance by the electorate in 2016.

The aerial photo occupied nearly half of the newspaper’s front page, and had the caption: “Like London’s maze garden. The estate consists of a piggery, cock farm, swimming pool, man-made lagoon, 2 rest houses, a main ranch home, and an orchid farm.” What’s the point of those details if not to paint Binay as having a scandalously luxurious estate?

And right beneath the huge photo was the newspaper’s headline, in the largest font possible: ‘Binay farm 350-ha estate.’ The headline text was placed between two apostrophes, which technically means that it is an allegation. But few outside the newspaper industry really are aware of that.

The following day October 9, even the apostrophes signifying an allegation were dropped in the banner headline, which means the newspaper was stating it as a fact: “Binay’s P1.2-B estate behind overpricing.”

There was another huge photo of the estate with text boxes to explain its features, such as “mansion resort pool,” “imported orchid farm,” and “40-car garage.”

Binay’s-estate20141010
The estate reported by PDI as an agritourism park Sept. 28. A week later it becomes “Binay’s estate,” based on the allegations of one man, who had all the reasons to want to hit the vice president.

 

Mercado presented the photo with the annotations, prepared by a professional advertising firm, at the Senate hearing, quite obviously with the sole intention of giving the PDI the excuse to publish it.

That it was intended to rouse wrath against Binay was all too obvious in the title of the photo’s caption: “Imeldific in Rosario, Batangas.” The caption even noted that the “piggery is air-conditioned because the VP’s wife Elenita doesn’t like the stuffy smell and can’t countenance a fly.”

And what’s the PDI’s basis for these screaming headlines and striking photos of an estate that beats Imelda Marcos’ lifestyle?

There are no land registration documents, as in the case of police chief Alan Purisima’s ‘rest-house;’ no report on it in Binay’s SALN, in contrast to Purisima’s case. In fact, the town land registrar issued an official affidavit that Binay had no properties in the area.

That Binay and his family own it is solely, entirely, completely based on the allegation of one and only one man: his former vice mayor who became his sworn enemy when Binay didn’t allow him to succeed him as mayor of Makati and, instead, had his son run for the post.

And that allegation has been labeled a lie by a respectable businessman Tony Tiu, who heads the corporation running the estate, which is an agritourism park.

In contrast to Marcos’ Swiss bank accounts, or to Indonesian Anthoni Salim’s control of Meralco and Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co., there are no corporate layers leading to Binay’s ownership of the estate.

I don’t know if Binay and his family own the estate or not. Maybe he does. Perhaps with the entire resources of this government mobilized, with people threatened to spill the beans as it were, it may be proven later that Binay and his family do own the estate.

But for the country’s largest newspaper to scream at this time that Binay, without the shadow of a doubt, owns the estate and publish huge photos to etch that notion in people’s minds is a travesty of justice and journalistic principles. That PDI with its veteran journalists and editors would report such, show it has an agenda that has thrown to the wastebasket the values of journalism.

Note that it has only been the PDI, which has treated the Binay issue in such a biased sensational way that is the equivalent of a rabble-rouser with a microphone rousing a lynch mob.

My sincerest apologies to the PDI – for whose editors and reporters I have the highest regard, especially for its editor-in-chief, the intrepid Letty Magsanoc.

I know that I may be risking the ire of the biggest publication in the country. But I don’t care. I care about the future of the Fourth Estate I have spent my entire working life in, and I want to put on record my outrage over such debasement of media. A newspaper can’t be a political partisan, or it slips in the murky world of propaganda and lies.

We have to take the Press seriously as a crucial pillar of democracy, especially as the French social critic Alain de Botton puts it, “Societies become modern, the philosopher Hegel suggested, when news replaces religions as our central source of guidance and our touchtone of authority.”

I have never seen such a crass demolition job undertaken by any newspaper against anybody, and for the obvious intention of demolishing Binay’s chances for winning the presidency in 2016. (Well maybe I’m wrong: PDI’s treatment of the alleged Makati building overpricing issue was at the same level of bias and sensationalism.)

The newspaper that had been the organ of the two EDSA revolutions, the champion of the oppressed, has become the media arm, tactically, of senators Antonio Trillanes and Alan Cayetano, so young yet so lusting for a higher post in 2016. Strategically, it has become the tool of this corrupt hypocritical regime that intends to remain in power by hook or by crook.

Or maybe the reasons are quite petty: That PDI merely wants the country to know that it is the Philippines’ kingmaker that it can determine who would be Philippine president.

It’s an agritourism park, stupid

What makes PDI’s biased coverage of Binay’s alleged estate so outrageous is that the newspaper itself actually had a lengthy report on it, even having the same kind of photo just about a week before, on Sept. 28, with the article’s headline: “Park offers agriculture tour, good deals for farmers.”

That report said the estate was an “agritourism” park called “Sunchamp,” which explains why it had gardens, a lagoon, and all those “luxurious” facilities the paper would, a month later, try to use to whip up anger against Binay. The firm Agrinurture Inc., headed and mainly owned by a young Chinese-Filipino, Tony Tiu, developed it precisely as an agritourism park.

Following is the newspaper’s article on Sunchamp:

“A new concept in agriculture that combines farming with tourism has taken shape in Rosario, Batangas.

Called Sunchamp, the agriculture-tourism park not only seeks to empower farmers through deals that would give them a guaranteed market for their produce, but also to bring tourism to another level.

In a statement, the Agrinurture Inc. (ANI), the firm that developed the Sunchamp agritourism park, said the park is open to tourists who could get a closer look at agricultural processes through the park’s many facilities.

These facilities include a greenhouse, an orchid nursery and farms for mango, mahogany and asparagus, the ANI statement said.

It said ANI entered into a partnership agreement with other groups, like Jollibee Foundation, for a program to help farmers around Sto. Rosario, get better deals. Under the program, farmers are given seedlings and become contract growers for ANI.

“This type of cooperation between the farmers and the corporations will serve as a demonstration that the symbiotic relationship is possible and profitable,” said the ANI statement.

“In the end, this will lead to endless possibilities,” it said. Sunchamp was opened to the public on Aug. 5 in ceremonies led by businessman Tony Tiu, founder and executive chair of ANI.

The ANI statement said it was Tiu’s dream to bring Sunchamp to reality. It is a park that actually generates produce and, at the same time, brings awareness on different stages of food production through tourism.

Among those who attended the opening of Sunchamp are Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, presidential adviser on agriculture, and Sen. Antonio Trillanes. A group of orphans was also given a tour of the agritourism park.

They were briefed on greenhouse facilities for high value crops like lettuce, bell pepper, tomato and spices. A research and development center for carabao mango and cacao production inside the park was also opened to the guests.

The JCB Farm of Vice President Jejomar Binay used to have leasehold improvements in a small portion of the agri-industrial estate.

In the ANI statement, Tiu said Sunchamp is the realization of his dream for corporate success to be inclusive. ‘I think corporations all over the world are starting to realize that survival, or the measurement of success, for a company does not rely on numbers alone, but on how much you have contributed to humanity,’ said Tiu.”

(Last part of my series on MRT-3 on Monday.)