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Testing the New York Times’ fairness

ON the suggestion of a reader, I emailed a letter to the New York Times (reproduced in the latter part of this column). It is my comment on a piece which retired editor Vergel Santos managed to get the newspaper to publish recently. It contained so many lies about our country, at the rate of nearly one per paragraph, that I thought I had to do something about it.

The NYT has also distributed the piece internationally, and it has been published in several websites of global broadcast media, such as Al Jazeera.

The difficult position of our country, illustrated by Santos’ success in having his piece published, is the result of four factors.

First, Western media almost automatically and totally, believes claims made by “their own.” Santos is chairman of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), which is funded by the US State Department. The noisiest basher of President Duterte is Rappler, headed by Maria Ressa, who is a former CNN staffer, and is a US citizen.

Ressa’s biggest PR in the US is Sheila Coronel, dean of a journalism unit of Columbia University in New York. Because of their journalistic laziness, correspondents for foreign news entities have been swayed into joining the mob against Duterte that had been led by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Second, the issues brought against President Duterte — the alleged human rights abuses in the course of his campaign against illegal drugs and his purported authoritarianism — are those that the US Deep State sees as the main threats to present-day humanity, which it is its duty to fight.

Worse, the US Deep State has used these issues as its propaganda tools to overthrow regimes not to their liking and to justify its invasions of oil rich countries, e.g., Iraq’s Hussein and Libya’s Ghadafi allegedly waging war against their own peoples. Duterte, because of his vulgar speech and demeanor, easily fits into that narrative, that he is another brutal Third World tyrant, which Western media must help remove.

The third factor is that while Philippine-based bashers like Santos may feel their egos bloated when their articles are printed by globally renowned newspapers like the New York Times, the reality is that such lies get to be published only because Western media sees us only as one of the dozens of really unimportant places in the world, so that they don’t really bother, or are too lazy to check the veracity of such attention-getting articles.

To understand this phenomenon, if you were the foreign news editor of a newspaper here, would you bother to check if a foreign news service reports that kids were really being killed in Brazil’s slums? Santos claims 5,000 extrajudicial killings here. Horrible! But did NYT staffers bother to check that figure? Too much work for that small country in Asia.

The fourth factor involves the usual disease of media, whether it is a tabloid or a respected New York paper, which is encapsulated in that aphorism: “Dog bites man” isn’t news. But ‘man bites dog’ is.”

“Results of elections show Filipinos’ overwhelming support for Duterte, who is a gross violator of human rights and a fledgling authoritarian.” That’s attention-getting and very interesting news. “Because of Duterte’s successes in governing, most Filipinos support him.” That’s a ho-hum piece.

The following is my attempt to debunk Santos’ alarming news about the Philippines, and I made it exactly as long as his 953-word piece. Let’s see if the NYT publishes it, to demonstrate its fairness.

Email to NYT
Mr. Vergel Santos’ piece (“Rodrigo Duterte got another endorsement — and more power — in midterm elections”) published in your paper May 24 contained several patent lies, as follows:

1. He wrote: “Since becoming president, Mr. Duterte has waged a war on drugs estimated to have produced more than 5,000 extrajudicial killings as of late December.”

That figure refers to the published report of the government’s Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency that between July 2016 and the end of November last year, 5,050 suspected criminals were killed in shoot-outs with the police.

Those 5,050 killed were not “extrajudicial killings,” or summary executions by state entities that disregard the rule of law. That report categorically stated that the figure refers to those killed by policemen defending themselves in legitimate operations, when the suspects refused to surrender. I don’t think an agency of our government would officially report the number of extrajudicial killings, will it?

There has been so far only one case proven to be an extrajudicial killing, involving the 2016 murder of a teenager by three Caloocan City cops, who have been convicted. It was the police’s internal affairs department which filed the case.

2. Santos wrote: “Mr. Duterte’s administration has persecuted his critics, be they journalists (like a founder of the news site Rappler, where I work) or even sitting senators.”

The cases filed against Rappler, a news website which doesn’t deny its stance against Duterte, involved first its violation of the constitutional ban on foreign funds in the media – which this writer exposed in his columns, and demanded that government defend the Constitution. Second was its nonpayment of taxes of P172 million. The third was a libel case which was filed by a private businessman whom Rappler alleged was a drug lord. Rappler refused to delete the libelous article in its website, despite several appeals by the businessman.

The case against “sitting senators” involves first, that of Leila de Lima who was accused of having allowed the national prison to be turned into a command center for drug lords, when she was justice secretary. The witnesses, which include convicted drug lords and her driver whom she herself has admitted had been her boyfriend, claimed she received millions of pesos in bribes for her role.

The second sitting senator is Antonio Trillanes 4th, who is now being held accountable for the coup attempts he and his group of military mutineers launched against former President Arroyo, but whom her successor Benigno Aquino 3rd protected and shielded from justice.

These cases are being undertaken by our regular courts and independent of the executive branch. If Santos makes the extraordinary claim that these are controlled by Duterte, he should present extraordinary proof for such.

3. Santos wrote: “Mr. Duterte has cozied up to China, ceding to it access to the resource-rich West Philippine Sea, partly in exchange for loans, despite the risk of being trapped by debt.”

Santos’ source for this allegation is an opinion piece in Forbes.com, which you yourself would know is hardly the epitome of balanced journalism.

It is just not true that Duterte has “ceded access” to Philippine territory it controls in the South China Sea. If Santos is referring to the Chinese “de facto” control of Scarborough Shoal, it was the past administration that lost it in 2012 to China because of its bungled handling of the crisis. At this time, the Philippines has no way to recover it, short of war.

Official, IMF-monitored, government statistics show that as of end 2018, the country’s total project debt exposure to China was only six-tenths of one percent of the country’s total debt to governments, minuscule compared to the country’s debt to Japan, which is 9 percent [of total debt].

4. Santos wrote: Duterte’s “camp holds 20 of the 24 seats in the Senate.”

Out of the 24 sitting senators starting July, only four would be those who wouldn’t have won if not for Duterte’s campaigning for them — his former police chief Ronald dela Rosa, his former aide Bong Go, re-electionist Koko Pimentel and Francis Tolentino. Their anti-thesis are the four remaining hard-core anti-Duterte, Liberal Party senators until 2022: Francis Pangilinan, Franklin Drilon, Risa Hontiveros and the jailed Leila de Lima.

Santos is making the preposterous claim that 16 independent senators who won in the recent elections or whose terms expire only in 2022 are Duterte’s stooges. Among these are Grace Poe who ran in the 2016 presidential elections against Duterte; Cynthia Villar, the wife of the country’s richest man who ran for president in 2010; and former president Joseph Estrada’s former national police chief Panfilo Lacson. Two former senators were re-elected not because of Duterte but because they were popular action-movie stars.

5. Santos claims: “The voting on May 13 was heavily clouded by election-day violence and anomalies at polling stations and, later, by inexplicable delays by the election commission.”

His source for that claim is an article in the anti-Duterte news website Rappler, indicated in the hyperlink embedded in the sentence, But the article itself didn’t even report that it was “heavily clouded.”

It merely quoted the press statement from one of the election-monitoring groups run by private citizens that said they were “concerned over election violence, irregularities” in four of the northernmost Muslim-dominated provinces of the country. These provinces, however, have been “hotspots” in every election undertaken in the country.

The opposition has not questioned the elections, and all its senatorial candidates have conceded their defeat. The elections have been viewed — except by Santos — as reflecting accurately Filipinos’ choices in an electoral exercise involving 50 million votes undertaken in one day.

6. Santos wrote: “The president’s inner circle has been accused of maintaining links to major drug traffickers.” He was referring to YouTube-posted videos in which an anonymous, hooded person makes those allegations.

That accuser surrendered to the police two days before the publication of Santos’ piece, and even held a tell-all press conference. He claimed that it was strident Duterte critic Senator Trillanes and other opposition personalities who had asked him to make those allegations in exchange for P500,000 and the dropping of the pending criminal cases against him.




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