Duterte’s 21 foreign trips should be applauded, not ‘rapplered’

THE online-only news site Rappler, funded by Americans and controlled by a mining and property tycoon, has done it again, this time claiming that President Duterte’s “costly” foreign trips reflect his exorbitant lifestyle.

This news site ignored, among other explanations, that the higher P387 million expenses is due to one simple reason. This President has had 21 voyages abroad in his first 12 months in office in order to quickly expand the country’s global network of supporters and to repair the damage done by his predecessor to our relations with China.

Duterte has had the most such trips among the past five Presidents. Benigno Aquino 3rd in same time frame had 11 foreign trips, his mother, 5. (See table.)

Rappler has demonstrated its anti-Duterte bias through a propaganda trick it has invented that I’d call rapplering. which I bet it will do again and again : Distort data to exaggerate things to paint the Duterte regime black.

Rappler did it last year with devastating consequences for the country’s image when it distorted police data to report that Duterte’s war against illegal drugs had resulted in 7,080 summary executions as of September 2016 (See my column “How Rappler misled EU, Human Rights Watch, CNN, Time, BBC — the world.”)

While that figure has been totally debunked—it included all other murders the police was investigating—Rappler has not corrected it, and similarly biased Western media have used it to extrapolate that such executions total more than 10,000 by February.

This time, the news site boasts to have done an investigative-journalism piece by claiming that Duterte’s foreign trips “cost thrice more than predecessors”.

The lede of the piece immediately reveals its intent:

“President Rodrigo Duterte projects himself as a man of simple tastes, almost allergic to extravagance and unnecessary expenses. Yet Malacañang records show he spent about triple what his predecessors spent on foreign travels during his first year in power.” The article repeats this false message clothed in doubtful figures: “Duterte’s exorbitant spending contradicts his projected image of a thrifty and practical President.”

President Duterte meeting with China’s and Russia’s leaders: Rappler claimed these to be “exorbitant”.

The article is classic “rapplering”.

Rappler claims its data were all from “Malacañang records” obtained through the Freedom from Information system ordered by Duterte. However, it was only the figures on Duterte’s trips that were acquired from Malacañang, and therefore accurate government info.

Rappler’s figures on the cost of foreign trips of Aquino and Arroyo are based on a single article in 2014 by the pro-Aquino Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) intended to show that Aquino was more frugal than his predecessor Arroyo—as well as other “media reports” it didn’t identify.

The PDI in turn cited “information from the Commission on Audit”, yet it didn’t report exactly what COA document this was. The COA doesn’t have any report on the actual cost of foreign travels of each president.

The PDI article in fact pointed out: “Inquirer.net has yet to receive the data requested from the COA in order to compare the expenses of past administrations. Comparison of travel expenses of each President will be the subject of another article.” There never was any such second article.

Rappler therefore may be comparing a report by the Duterte’s accountants meticulously counting every peso spent on his trips to comply with the FOI system, with reports by the past administrations’ media people understating the cost of presidential trips, and they were able to do this since there wasn’t any FOI during those times.

The big trick in counting costs for “foreign trips” – and I know as I have worked in Malacañang and this is the reason that as a journalist I never dealt with issues of costs of foreign trips – is that expenses for such foreign trips, except for plane fares and hotel accommodations, could be classified, depending on the accountants’ whim, with other items under the President’s or other department secretaries’ budgets.

For all we know, the Arroyo and Aquino administrations may have counted only costs of airfare and hotel accommodations, while an overeager accountant of the Duterte government counted all expenses to the last centavo when the President and his party were abroad, such as communication, restaurant bills, and office supplies.

While providing details on Duterte’s expenses, Rappler reported only the total expenses as claimed by past administrations, with no classification as to how much were spent, for instance, on airfare and hotels and other expense.

The more accurate assessment of the cost of Presidents’ foreign trips would be based on the item in the government’s Congress-made budget labelled “local/foreign missions and state visits”. As shown in the accompanying table, this amounted to P225 to P255 million for each year from 2010 to 2013.

However, Aquino doubled his travel budget to P551, starting in 2014, until its last budget, in 2016. This belies PDI and Rappler’s reports that Aquino had been frugal in his spending during his foreign trips: Why would he order his budget for trips doubled? The amount allotted for foreign trips in Duterte’s first budget, for 2017, was reduced a bit to P472 million, well within the claimed P387 million costs of his foreign trips in 12 months.

Rather than nitpicking on how much Duterte may have spent in his trips abroad, we should admire that this former mayor of what is really a frontier city has hit the ground running in visiting nearly two dozen countries in order to enhance our diplomatic ties abroad and to strengthen our role in multilateral bodies such as Asean, Apec and the East Asia Summit. His predecessor Aquino visited only 11 countries in his first year in office. I myself had not thought that Duterte with his clumsy, Bisayan English and ill-tailored suits would have the confidence to meet with world leaders.

Duterte had moved fast to thaw the very icy diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the world’s second biggest economy, China, that emerged as a result of Aquino and his American-boy foreign secretary Albert del Rosario’s suit against China over the Spratlys dispute. That was the first ever such suit against that emerging superpower despite its territorial disputes with over 20 countries. I’m totally convinced that Duterte’s quick reversal of Aquino’s American-inspired anti-China policy and moves will be one of his biggest accomplishments as president.

In a span of just a year, Duterte has managed to steer the country away from its century-old subservience to the US, drawing us closer to the two superpowers closer to us, China and the Russian Federation. I don’t think any other President could have, or would have done, that.

I suspect the Rappler reporter who wrote critically over Duterte’s trips has never travelled abroad. If she did, she would have an inkling that foreign trips on government time aren’t as romantic as tourist vacations shown in TV advertisements. Foreign government trips are the most hectic and tiring part of any President’s job. When I was presidential chief of staff during Arroyo’s administration, I selfishly begged off from further joining her trips after the fourth, sick of the sight of airports and of the smell of airplane food. I am certainly not suprised that after 21 trips abroad, Duterte has taken time off to rest and re-charge.

For a 72-year-old grandfather like Duterte, who is so tied to his Davao home and to his own bed, foreign trips would be a real struggle. Yet this American-funded, tycoon-controlled news site claims his foreign trips demonstrate his exorbitant lifestyle.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

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