Sun, 20 Sep 2020

Missing in action or in photo-op

07 Nov 2019, 22:13 GMT+10

Screengrab from Rappler's Facebook page.

Absent in Mindanao

DESTRUCTIVE QUAKES shook Mindanao during the last week of October but the survivors in the affected areas did not see hide or hair of President Rodrigo Duterte, the first president from the region.

A magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck on October 29 followed by a magnitude 6.5 tremor on October 31, the epicenter located in Tulunan, Cotabato. The disaster triggered landslides and caused several structures to collapse. A magnitude 5.5 followed on November 1, its epicenter located southeast of Sarangani. As of November 4, data from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) tallied 22 dead, 424 injured and more than 180,000 people affected, homeless and awaiting emergency assistance and supplies.

Despite the extreme conditions in the affected region, President Duterte who was reportedly in his home in Davao City was hardly seen in media reports. It was Salvador Panelo, Palace spokesperson, who was quoted saying Duterte had ordered agencies and local government units (LGUs) to provide necessary assistance and immediate relief to those affected.

CMFR monitored reports in the primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2's TV Patrol, GMA-7's 24 Oras, TV5's Aksyon and CNN Philippines' News Night) and leading broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star) from October 28 to November 4.

Before the break for All Saints' Day, Duterte was last seen in national news at the oath-taking of newly appointed officials in the Palace on October 28, the same event when he dared Vice President Leni Robredo to take over the war on drugs. There were no visuals of him in print and TV.

The president resurfaced on the evening of October 31, talking to reporters in the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Davao City.

Media are usually quick to note such executive absence in the aftermath of a disaster. Woe to the president with low visibility as this translates quickly into lack of official care and attention for victims.

Rappler observed that Duterte had not visited affected areas. It published a report on October 31 noting that this was a departure from his habit of visiting calamity- struck places.

CMFR has noted media's reporting his presence at the wakes of dead soldiers, of Miguel Barreto as well as his visit to condole with the family of Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

As for explaining this notable absence from the scene, most reports merely recorded Panelo's explanation that Duterte was refraining from inspecting quake-affected areas because of ongoing LGU disaster operations.

After the president departed for Thailand, media accounts detailed the dire conditions in the disaster areas and pointed out that local authorities who were similarly affected could not provide assistance. Also during the weekend, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, who was officer-in-charge, tasked Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to lead relief efforts.

Tardy in Thailand

The president left for Thailand for the 35th ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit on November 1. He attended the opening ceremony, the ASEAN-Summit plenary session and the signing of a memorandum of understanding between ASEAN and the Federacion Internacional de Football Association (FIFA), among others. The president, however, skipped three events on November 4: ASEAN-US Summit, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) meeting and the closing ceremonies.

He also failed to join a photo op with leaders from China, Japan and South Korea on the same day. News footage showed Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi leaving space for him, which was eventually filled by Junever Mahilum-West, assistant secretary for ASEAN affairs. Panelo told the press that a restroom stop delayed the president. News organizations were careful not to call more attention to the president's being late.

It is not the first ASEAN Summit for the president, during which skipping events has become a habit that the press seems to have accepted as the norm and not providing much more about how he conducts himself on these foreign trips.

Not saying much about how the president conducts himself on foreign trips reflects a lot about what is happening to the role of the press as watchdog of power. But the press failed to look into the glaring absence of the president from the quake-affected areas in Mindanao; he was after all physically in Davao during the disaster. As watchdog of power, the press should have paid more attention to the failure of the first president from Mindanao to check on the situation of his fellow Mindanaons.

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