Column: Binay’s path to victory

Column No. 357. Published on August 11, 2015.

We should ask the same questions of the first declared candidate for president that we asked of the second. Thus: Can Jojo Binay win in 2016? Despite the recent loss of his frontrunner status, the objective answer must still be yes. Will he win? We should have a better idea by March next year.

Again, these answers are a belaboring of the obvious—except that President Aquino’s endorsement of Mar Roxas as his preferred successor has colored partisan analysis by sharpening the contrast between the two political rivals. There is now a palpable sense of excitement among Roxas’ supporters, especially among the true believers, that because the endorsement was announced at the right time and in exactly the right way, momentum is on Roxas’ side.

That remains to be seen. The plans of Sen. Grace Poe, the popular political newcomer who topped the Senate elections in 2013, are very much a factor; indeed, Roxas and his chief lieutenants are still busy wooing Poe to join his ticket as vice presidential candidate. (I think even the seating arrangement at the head table in the so-called show of force by Roxas’ political allies in Greenhills, San Juan, last week was designed with Poe in mind: Roxas was seated between Mr. Aquino on his left and two prospective running mates on his right, the popular actress and accomplished politician Vilma Santos-Recto, governor of Batangas, and civil society favorite Rep. Leni Robredo.)

And Binay is not exactly standing still. A week after the President’s State of the Nation Address, he offered his own “true” take on the national situation; he used the occasion to deepen his criticism of the administration he used to serve.

Can he win? The necessary conditions are there. Continue reading

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Women at the Gemaldegalerie

I went to the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin in June last year, before the start of a study tour of German media institutions, to see its pair of Vermeers. (Part of my bucket list.) Along the way, other works of art caught my eye — including these two profiles of “jungen Frau,” done in the 15th century. They seem to me to be very much a part of their time, and at the same time thoroughly modern, of our time. The first looks familiar because it is by Botticelli; that is to say, it reminds us of Botticelli’s women, but because it is in profile we are not certain at first. The second is by one of Botticelli’s masters, Antonio del Pollaiuolo; we stare at it because we think it looks like someone we know (the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, perhaps, stepping back in time); only later do we realize that we were staring because it — she — was beautiful.

ProfileYoung frau

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Column: Roxas’ path to victory

Published on August 4, 2015.

CAN MAR Roxas win? The objective answer is yes. Will he? The most realistic answer is: It’s too early to tell.

I find myself belaboring these obvious points, because the theory—or the narrative, if you will—that Roxas is a sure loser is making the rounds again. (For a couple of days after President Aquino endorsed Roxas as the Liberal Party candidate for president in the 2016 elections, the news and social media environment for Roxas turned decidedly favorable. Call it the endorsement bump.) But some of the same people who thrill to the possibility of a Miriam Defensor Santiago presidential run (which would be her third), or declare confidently that Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has the right strategy and enough money to lay claim to the presidency, sweepingly discount Roxas’ chances because of his “low” ratings. But in the June 2015 Social Weather Stations survey, only 4 percent of the respondents saw Santiago as one of the three best leaders to succeed President Aquino, while only 3 percent listed Marcos. About a fifth of the respondents, or 21 percent, included Roxas in their list. Continue reading

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Column: Aquino a lame duck?

Published on July 28, 2015.

IN JULY 2005, at the lowest point in Gloria Arroyo’s presidency, she went to the Batasan for the State of the Nation Address rite not so much to defend herself, as to test her political allies’ defenses. She received an enthusiastic welcome.

To witness the outpouring of support, to hear the lusty cheers and to see the outstretched hands, for a leader who only a couple of weeks before had considered resigning because of an election fraud controversy, was to learn a crucial lesson in political resilience.

The political class respects power, recognizes it, rallies to it—and nothing adds sheen to power like surviving a crisis.

I am reminded of this fundamental fact of Philippine politics because of the spreading notion that President Aquino is “losing clout,” is becoming a “lame duck,” as he begins his last year in office.

This notion runs counter to Philippine political experience. Continue reading

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Column: Turning Filipino misery into hope

Published on July 21, 2015.

THE LAST two columns—a consideration of the returning Filipino’s frustration that the Philippines is “being left behind,” followed by a discussion of the “deadly” Filipino habits that help explain why—lead us to the necessary question: What can we do about it? The several hundred comments on both Disqus and Facebook (I have tried to read every single one) have mostly been thoughtful if pained responses: elaborations of the argument, illustrations from personal experience. Continue reading

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Column: Filipinos, what are we doing wrong?

Published on July 14, 2015.

THE HUNDREDS of comments in response to last week’s column, on “The misery of the Filipino,” were largely empathetic; many shared the same deep sense of possibility and the same sense of sharp frustration. The response inspires me to take the next step and ask the unavoidable question: What are we doing wrong?

A Malaysian academic swears some of the best medical doctors in Singapore are Filipino. (I think some of the best bankers, too.) A Thai media executive investing in digital believes, or rather simply assumes, that his regional website should be developed by “creative” Filipinos. A famous New York City-based newspaper designer describes a Filipino colleague as “the best art director in the world.” I know a Filipino manager who is the consultant of choice of one large American enterprise doing business in different parts of Africa. Many of us can offer our own examples of Filipinos doing excellent work abroad.

The pattern of excellence can assume large-scale form, on the level of entire countries or industries. Indonesian companies have Filipino corporate executives working at the highest levels. Some of the world’s best universities have Filipino students at the top of their class or doing pioneering research work. Filipino architects have helped shape the skyline in Brunei; Filipino engineers have helped tame the deserts of the Middle East; Filipino mariners have helped define the modern maritime industry.

And yet, back home, this pattern of excellence is difficult to find. The continuing MRT fiasco and the unresolved scandal of the Mindanao blackouts are defining failures of the Aquino administration, but the cause of the “misery of the Filipino” I wrote about—“the unhappiness of a citizen seeing her country being left behind”—is not merely political, goes beyond the lifespan of single administrations. The endemic corruption, the absence of “gleaming infrastructure” to match those of neighboring countries, even the lack of discipline at traffic intersections or indeed on any road where jeepneys and tricycles can load or unload passengers anywhere, at any time: These and similar conditions of life in these islands go way back, some right past Rizal’s generation. Continue reading

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Column: The misery of being Filipino

Published on July 7, 2015.

TRAVEL BROADENS the mind; for the Filipino tourist or scholar or worker abroad, it must also deepen the misery of being Filipino. Do not get me wrong; Filipinos are a famously happy people, with an extraordinary capacity for both work and play. I can also attest, from my own happy experience, to the resurgence in patriotic pride since the late 1980s.

Whether it was the People Power revolution in 1986 which electrified the world, or the 1991 Southeast Asian Games we hosted and nearly won, or the decade and a half of uninterrupted economic growth since 2001; whether it is the worldwide fame of a boxing all-time great, or the phenomenal rise of a completely new industry in business process outsourcing, or the determined challenge against an expansionist superpower in the West Philippine Sea, or the continuing celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of a heroic generation—I share the sense that many Filipinos are proud of their country, with an uncomplicated sense of pride. It is a pride different in degree from the identity-anxious nationalism of the 1960s, different in kind from the sham Filipinism promoted by a dictatorial regime in the 1970s.

At least that is my sense: There is today a greater clarity about our place in the sun. Continue reading

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Column: Grown men, whining

Published on June 30, 2015.

Two “opinion pieces” made the rounds and generated enormous controversy in the last few days. One was a Facebook post by a University of the Philippines professor; the other a sharply worded dissenting opinion by a famous justice of the US Supreme Court. Both, in my view, offer instructive examples of extremist thinking — that is, of a lived philosophy or ideology taken, in one particular, unfortunate instance, to the extreme. In their desperation of the moment, both the leftist sociologist Gerard Lanuza and the right-wing jurist Antonin Scalia came off sounding like grown men whining. Continue reading

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Column: The most subversive text of the year

Column No. 350, published on June 23, 2015.

For a good many of us, “Laudato Si” (Praised Be) will be the most subversive text we will read all year, or indeed for many years. The extraordinary eco-encyclical from Pope Francis contains explosive truths, not about the science of climate change, but about the persistence of poverty, the excesses of a market economy, the fetish for technology and the technocratic solution, the consequences of middle-class aspirations, the failings of the media, even the role of the human in a “rapidifying” world.

“Laudato Si” offers the kind of radical reading that subverts our assumptions, challenges our deepest convictions, makes us see anew. The lengthy document attempts to give a truly global treatment of the ecological catastrophe we all face; some or many of the notes the Pope strikes will be familiar to us, but taken together, the whole acquires a resonance unheard since “Gaudium et Spes” signaled the reconciliation between the Church and the modern world. Continue reading

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Column: When does opinion become an unpublishable stupidity?

Published on June 16, 2015.

I wish to revisit a topic that colleague Oscar Franklin Tan and I have debated in recent weeks: the role of commentary in the so-called free market of ideas. I have the sense that while we are both believers in free speech, we define the terms of the argument differently. To be more precise, we may have different ideas of what passes for publishable commentary in newspaper opinion pages.

The argument has not lost its appeal for me since Oscar first raised what I called his “seductive” but “untenable and misguided” appeal to Inquirer editors to screen out controversial opinion pieces like those contributed by retired Court of Appeals justice Mario Guariña III; I have continued to review my own response, borne out of the experience of working in opinion sections in three newspapers, including in particular almost a decade and a half with the Inquirer, to check my biases and trace the consequences of my position. But I am led to return to the subject because Oscar’s criticism of an opinion piece, in another newspaper, raises an even more uncomfortable question. Continue reading

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Column: ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘the real world’

Published on June 9, 2015.

THE hit HBO series is as real as fantasy gets. The world imagined by the novelist George R. R. Martin and translated into compelling television by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss is both celebrated and condemned for its controversial “realism”—conspiracies are hatched in brothels, money and beauty are traded as political capital, the well-meaning are put to death.

For a show that includes ice-treading zombies and fire-breathing dragons, “Game of Thrones” is widely seen as a brutally frank dramatization of life’s hard truths. The powerful and ambitious are Machiavellian in their scheming; the state is Orwellian in its dependence on spies and informers; life itself is Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and (as in the story of the good, well-meaning Ned Stark) always at risk of being suddenly shortened.

Scholars of international politics have taken to the show. Leading journals such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy have mined the series (and sometimes the books on which the series is based) for lessons on international relations (IR) or political alliances or the nature of power itself. Continue reading

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Column: PH politics is a 600-year-old ‘balete’ tree

Published on June 2, 2015.

IT IS an imposing sight. The massive balete tree in Maria Aurora town, in Aurora province, is about as tall as a 15-story building and at its base is as wide as a three- or four-bedroom house. Tourists visit it by the busload, drawn by a simple superlative: It is known as the largest balete tree in Asia.

There is some slip-sliding, sometimes, and local guides also call it the oldest—but that title probably goes to the balete tree in Canlaon City, in Negros Oriental, which has an estimated age of 1,300 years, or more than twice as old. (I have not yet been to Canlaon myself.) But the tree in Maria Aurora is an extraordinary sight; first there is its sheer size; then there are the thousands of hanging roots that have descended (the tree starts as an air plant) to form an incredibly dense curtain right around it; and then there is the gap, just big enough to accommodate a crouching adult human, in the middle of the tree.

It takes only a couple of minutes to walk through the tree. The roots inside have been smoothened over the years, from contact with tourists’ suddenly helpless hands and wayward limbs, but being inside the tree, and looking up from within its hollow core at a hall of roots, is an eerie, unforgettable experience. Continue reading

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Column: Is the Philippine flag ‘unconstitutional’?

Published on May 26, 2015.

THE RESISTANCE to the Bangsamoro Basic Law has shifted to the battleground of constitutionality. We still hear the occasional demand for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to show its sincerity as a partner in the peace process by making amends for the Mamasapano incident—but now that congressional committees have started voting on the controversial measure, the question of MILF sincerity is no longer a determining or even perhaps an influential factor.

Even supporters of the bill recognize the shift in the debate; Rep. Rufus Rodriguez’s strategy to win the bill’s passage at his committee level, for instance, was premised and pushed (and publicized) on the perceived need to align key provisions in the BBL with the Constitution.

We can all agree on one principal reason for the change: It is an attempt to base the debate on firmer ground, on the solid logic of constitutional law rather than the volatile emotionalism of post-Mamasapano blame-mongering. Continue reading

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Column: The four deans: partisanship, not journalism

Published on May 12, 2015.

LAST WEEK, “the present and past deans” of the UP College of Mass Communication issued “Fact or Fiction?” a strongly worded statement expressing “its [sic] grave concern over the highly unprofessional coverage of the Mary Jane Veloso story by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.” In particular, the deans (only four of them, not all of those who have served in the position, as the definite article seems to imply) criticized the Inquirer for the reports it carried in two issues: those of April 29 and 30.

There is no quarrel, I have no argument, with the first point of criticism. (And please allow me to be clear: What follows is my personal opinion, not the position of the newspaper that has been home to me for almost 15 years.)

“In its April 29 headline and story (‘Death came before dawn’), the PDI quite dramatically announced the execution of Mary Jane Veloso in Indonesia, an execution which it turns out never actually happened because Veloso was given temporary reprieve.” This was a major error, one compounded by the melodramatic and meme-friendly phrasing of the headline. The newspaper apologized for the error twice, first on Wednesday mid-afternoon through a statement circulated on other Inquirer platforms, and then on the front page of the newspaper on Thursday. The apology came with a resolve to do better: “We are revamping newsroom processes to better inform and serve our readers and stakeholders.” Continue reading

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Column: Shadow-boxing with China

Published on May 5, 2015.

EVEN IN Baku, Azerbaijan, China’s shadow looms large. At the ongoing annual meeting of the Board of Governors of the Asian Development Bank, held this year in this storied city of the Southern Caucasus, China’s ambitions are very much a topic of discussion.

Beijing’s new initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, serves as a focus for much of the talk. At the first news conference held by ADB president Takehiko Nakao, for instance, the main item in the agenda was the announcement of a new, creative arrangement that would significantly increase the multilateral development bank’s lending capacity.

But many, if not most of the questions raised at the conference, dealt with the AIIB and its relationship with the ADB. The day before the news conference, Nakao had met with Liqun Jin, a former ADB vice president now serving as secretary general of the AIIB’s “Multilateral Interim Secretariat.” At that meeting, the two agreed to collaborate. “ADB will cooperate and cofinance with AIIB on infrastructure financing across Asia by using our long experience and expertise in the region,” Nakao said after the meeting. Continue reading

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Column: Paid hacks and retards?

Published on April 28, 2015.

The other week, I had the privilege of addressing the national conference of the Philippine Association of Communication Educators on a vexing subject: the quality of discourse in today’s new media. In preliminary remarks, I made two contrasting assertions. In the last couple of decades the overall quality must have risen, because the Internet has made access to the best sources and references possible; at the same time, the volume of offensive language has also obviously increased, creating Augean stables of gratuitous insult and hate speech.

But my main purpose at the PACE convention was to raise two specific questions, based on a reading of online comment threads, including that of the Inquirer. Why are “paid hack” and “retard” the preferred terms of abuse online, and what can the country’s communication educators do to discourage their use? Continue reading

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Column: A Chinese strategy: manipulating the record

Published on April 21, 2015.

ONE OF the leading scholars on the geopolitics of competing South China Sea claims is the French geographer Francois-Xavier Bonnet, a researcher with the French Institute for Research on Contemporary Southeast Asia or Irasec. The Friday before Holy Week, he read a provocative paper at the Southeast Asia Sea Conference, held at the Ateneo Law School in Makati City; I was not able to attend the forum, but he was kind enough to send me a copy of his paper.

It is a short but potent work of research, calling into question the “grand narrative” of the “archaeological campaigns” launched by Beijing in the 1970s. “Among the artifacts these expeditions found [in the Paracel islands] were porcelains from different periods, the remains of temples and several sovereignty markers,” Bonnet writes. “These markers were dated 1902, 1912 and 1921.” The campaigns served as the basis for extending the history of China’s “inspection tours” of the area, and thus of its rights to the Paracels, to 1902.

And then it gets really interesting. Allow me to quote from Bonnet at length:

“There is a simple reason why no scholar has been able to unearth any historical records of the 1902 expedition: it never happened. Instead evidence of a 1902 voyage was concocted at a much later date: 1937. Continue reading

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Column: Time for SAF to ‘man up’

Published on April 14, 2015.

One highlight of last week’s resumption of the congressional hearings into the Mamasapano incident was the direct challenge posed by an officer of the Philippine National Police’s elite Special Action Force to the commander of the Army’s 1st Mechanized Brigade.

Police Supt. Michael John Mangahis disputed Col. Gener del Rosario’s account of the circumstances behind the Army’s now-controversial refusal to direct artillery fire into the cornfields where the SAF’s 55th Special Action Company was battling Moro Islamic Liberation Front regulars from two base commands. Mangahis said Del Rosario had enough information not only from the SAF but from the Army’s assets in that part of Maguindanao province to know exactly where the artillery should be aimed. Continue reading

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Column: The other face of Mamasapano

Published on April 7, 2015.

IN THE first two months after the Mamasapano incident, the “face” of the encounter was a collective: The SAF 44. The tragic fate of the 44 Special Action Force troopers who perished in the cornfields of Mamasapano became the main narrative; suave opportunists like Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano and born-again politicians like Rafael Alunan rode the public outrage over the “massacre” of the elite policemen, to take direct aim at the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. A TV network even used a hashtag that sought #truthforthefallen44—as though truth were like justice, and took sides. Continue reading

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Column: Teresa, Lisa, Teresita

Published on March 31, 2015.

THOSE of us who imagine the saints as dour, reproachful personalities should make the acquaintance of Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite reformer and mystic whose 500th birthday the Catholic Church marked last Saturday.

She could startle with her candor. In Chapter 30 of “The Way of Perfection,” Teresa wonders aloud about how the “Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer Jesus himself taught his disciples, could be improved. “There is something it seems to me that should be noted: Couldn’t You, my Lord, have concluded the Our Father [‘Lord’s Prayer’] with the words: ‘Give us, Father, what is fitting for us.’? It doesn’t seem there would have been need to say anything else to One who understands everything so well.” Continue reading

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Column: Grace Poe’s unfortunately political report

Published on March 24, 2015.

I think highly of Sen. Grace Poe, and have suggested in an earlier column that she should not be dissuaded from running for president next year, in the same way that Jaime Cardinal Sin dissuaded Sen. Gloria Arroyo from contesting the presidency in 1998. But the Senate report on the Mamasapano incident Poe shepherded is disappointingly political.

Instead of politics understood as the art of the possible, the politics both implied and asserted in the Poe report is the entitlement of the privileged: the view of the center, in this case truly deserving of the insult “Imperial Manila”; the view of the toniest, most select branch of the political class (where politicians acquire their knowledge of combat through the painstaking process of movie-watching); and, not least, the view of the surviving kin of the 44 police Special Action Force troopers who died in Mamasapano (not those of the civilians who died in the crossfire, nor those of the 120,000 who perished in the “Mindanao conflict” since the 1970s).

This is a report that makes room for the viewpoints of most senators, but sadly allows very little room for the fate of innocents. I respect the discipline and courage and ultimate sacrifice of the Philippine National Police’s elite troopers, but I cannot subscribe to the unexamined assumption of Poe and her fellow senators that they were lambs led to the slaughter. Continue reading

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Column: The irresponsible populism of the Binay camp

Published on March 17, 2015.

The papal visit last January was a forceful reminder that populism is not necessarily a bad thing. Too often identified with the masa politics of Joseph Estrada and other celebrities-turned-politicians, populism in the Philippines was usually understood and practiced as nothing more than an appeal to the basest motive, the lowest common denominator. (Mea culpa.)

In Pope Francis’ embrace of popular piety, animated by his practice of the so-called theology of the people, we find the positive meaning of populism. In “Evangelii Gaudium,” referencing the pope of his formative years in the priesthood, Francis wrote: “Popular piety enables us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on. Once looked down upon, popular piety came to be appreciated once more in the decades following the Council. In the ‘Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi,’ Pope Paul VI gave a decisive impulse in this area. There he stated that popular piety ‘manifests a thirst for God which only the poor and the simple can know’ and that ‘it makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of bearing witness to belief.’”

Popular piety, then, is founded on a culture of respect for the common life (what a British critic, in an entirely different context, referred to as the ordinary universe). Populism at its heart is not the angry mob or the paid crowd, but the community of the poor and the simple. The emotion that pumps through that heart is not vengeance or self-interest, but “generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism.”

With Mayor Junjun Binay’s blatant appeal to his constituents to protect him from the agents of the government he himself serves, we find the complete opposite. I do not discount the possibility that many of those who ran to City Hall to put up a human barricade against Department of Interior and Local Government officials seeking to serve the suspension order of the Ombudsman did so out of genuine conviction; they were perfectly within their rights. But the statements emanating from Binay and his top allies are another thing altogether. In them we find the irresponsibility of reckless leaders who do not have their supporters’ own wellbeing at heart. Continue reading

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Column: ‘A whole climate of opinion’

Published on March 10, 2015.

Can psychoanalysis explain politics and through it perhaps history itself? From time to time, we may feel tempted to reach for our idiot’s guide to Freud or Jung to understand what makes, say, a senator like Ferdinand Marcos Jr. say truly head-scratching things.

For instance, he once tweeted: “Kahit na maging maayos ang usapan natin sa MILF, kung hindi naman kasama [sa peace agreement] ang BIFF, bakit pa tayo pipirma ng BBL?” His tweet raises the question whether he understands that the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is in fact the outcome of arduous negotiations with one insurgency movement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and not with other separatist movements, such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the relatively new splinter group. “Even if our discussion with the MILF is in order, if the BIFF is not included, why should we sign the BBL?”

Does a childhood trauma perhaps explain why Marcos would wish to include a third party in a two-party negotiation? Is there a hidden or unacknowledged motive in his use of an impossible criterion for signing off on the new law implementing the peace agreement with the MILF? Continue reading

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Column: What on earth is eating Alan Cayetano?

Published on March 3, 2015.

Last week marked a new low point for the opportunistic demagoguery of Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano. I was with other journalists covering the inspection tour of various sites in Central Mindanao by the police Board of Inquiry, so I was not able to see an otherwise intelligent young man transform yet again into a hypocritical bully on live television.

But I do have proof that he is a bully and a hypocrite. Continue reading

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Column: Media’s ‘right to be believed’

Published on February 24, 2015.

A student at a “peace camp,” held on the grounds of the Southeast Asia Rural Social Leadership Institute in Manresa, Cagayan de Oro City, raised a troubling, provocative question during a session I took part in last Saturday. Given all the speculation and inaccuracy and rank irresponsibility in media coverage of the Mamasapano incident (these were his premises, shared it seemed to me by many other students in the peace camp, a good number of whom were Muslim): “Does the media even have the right to be believed?” Continue reading

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