Media News Analysis

Newsless ‘news’ and news

Yesterday, while the Philippine Daily Inquirer led on yet another rant by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte “instigated and incited the bloodbath in his war on drugs,” there was actually quite a lot of real news worth reporting. These are stories of true national importance that we’d expect a national newspaper to cover as part of its role to inform the public of what’s happening in their country.

For us, HRW’s baseless allegations against Duterte and its tired progressive-Left agenda falls way outside the purpose of newspapers – call us old fashioned, but we still believe the prime function of a newspaper is to deliver the news. And so, the front-page-lead slot – “the splash” – should be reserved for the biggest news story of the day, not the biggest blatant piece of propaganda of the day. Or aren’t we meant to know the difference any more?

So here are a few items we believe are worthy of front page coverage, but we’ll leave it to you to decide which has more news merit; the articles below or yet another HRW editorial kindly accommodated courtesy of the media.

Foreign affairs. Date set for Duterte’s Moscow trip. President Duterte announced that he is to visit Moscow on 25 May when he’ll meet with Russian Federation president, Vladimir Putin, thus ending speculation on the timing of the trip.

Significantly, accompanying him will be the head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Central Command (CentCom), Major General Oscar Lactao. This is a state visit – and a groundbreaking one at that – so Lactao’s inclusion is noteworthy. As far as we know this is the first overseas presidential trip that the general has joined.

We believe, therefore, that defence cooperation – and possibly an agreement in that area – will be high on the agenda. That, though, will largely be a matter for the Foreign Secretary and his staff to hammer out with their opposite numbers from Smolenskaya Square. Lactao’s presence there could certainly tie in with that but his inclusion on this trip signals to us something more; something far more specific.

And that thing could be a request for Russian help in combating a newly emboldened communist New People’s Army (NPA) as well as the mounting presence of Islamist terror groups operating in the country’s southern Mindanao region with increasing Islamic State involvement.

In early January, the Russian Federation’s Ambassador to the Philippine, Igor Khovaev, assured the Philippine Government that his country was ready and willing to assist in addressing the terrorism threat it faces.

“The Russian Government adequately understands the threat and challenges in the security of your country … Russia also suffered a lot from terrorism, so we know very well what these threats mean … and we are ready to share our experience with the Philippines … we are open for any form of cooperation,” he said.

Since then, there have been a number of developments that have heightened the country’s security risk. Just one month after Khovaev made those remarks, nine months of peace talks between the government and the communist New People’s Army broke down after ceasefire violations. Duterte outlawed the NPA and the NPA went back to its nearly 50-year-old insurgency. Meanwhile, in Mindanao, further evidence has emerged that the Islamic State (IS) has been establishing a network of local terrorist groups, possibly to build a Southeast Asian front as IS comes under greater pressure to hang on to its territory in Iraq and Syria.

If it’s not any of that, we can see no reason why one of Duterte’s most senior military chiefs and the head of CentCom – the main role of which is counter-insurgency and anti-guerrilla operations – would be going with him to Moscow.

Economy. More jobs and investment from Japan. Japanese shipbuilder, Tsuneishi, is ready to invest PHP5 billion in a Philippine ship-recycling facility that’s expected to generate around 6,000 new jobs. The announcement was made by Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Secretary, Ramon Lopez, who’s just returned from Tokyo where he attended the Philippine Economic Forum and met with Tsuneishi’s president, Kenji Kawano.

The Tsuneishi Group’s existing Philippine operation, Tsuneishi Heavy Industries, a medium-size shipbuilder, is based in Balamban, a town of around 90,000 people, in Cebu, Central Visayas. In addition to shipbuilding, its main business is ship repair and fabrication services – manufacturing ships’ parts and fittings. Recycled high-quality steel from the new plant will be absorbed by the Cebu operation.

The funding of this project is in addition to the PHP10.2 worth of Japanese investment secured by President Duterte when he visited Tokyo in October. That was for two separate projects – a PHP5.2 billion skid barge and ship re-use centre in Negros Occidental province, expected to employ 6.000 workers and a PHP5 billion biomass alternative-fuel installation in Mindanao which should create a further 20,000 jobs.

Other Japanese investment interest coming from the Forum include a PHP2 billion factory expansion by prefabricated-housing components manufacturer, Ichijo Ltd, which will add a further 600 jobs to the company’s Philippine workforce. Currently, it has 25,000 employees working at its facilities in the Cavite Export Processing Zone. Another Japanese company – not identified, other than it already has a Philippine operation – is looking to expand its presence with a PHP7.5 billion investment that will create 20,000 jobs.

Certainly, this was a successful sales drive by members of the Philippine Economic Forum but it also signifies that investor confidence in the Philippines – far from diminishing as the anti-Duterte media regularly suggests – is extremely healthy. These are long-term investments to expand existing businesses, just about the last place that nervous investors would be putting their money.

Investment. Incentivising the countryside. Rural industries in the Philippines are among the main gainers in the just-released expanded 2017 Investment Priorities Plan (IPP) which sets out the government’s investment priorities over the next three years. But drug-rehab centres and climate-change projects have also been earmarked for the fast track.

Approved by President Duterte, the theme of the plan is “Scaling Up and Disbursing Opportunities” and one of its main focuses is to revive the countryside by creating jobs and investing across the flagging agriculture sector, including in the sub-sectors of agri-processing, fisheries, and forestry.

While poor farmers, regularly battered by destructive weather systems will be investment recipients, micro and small enterprises will also benefit. Apart from giving a boost to agriculture, part of this initiative is job creation which it’s hoped will stem the tide of migration to the cities – a human wave that sought better prospects away from the land, often without success. Agri-tourism – a niche subsector which is starting to take root in the Philippines – is also a target for investments, as is tourism generally; likewise, rural infrastructure such as farm-to-market roads, and infrastructure generally.

Manufacturing, health-care services (drug-rehabs fall within this category), the environment (with emphasis on climate-change projects), mass housing, energy and innovation flesh out the IPP’s “preferred activities for investment”.

This is an expanded plan which has allowed the government to take stock of the unfolding situation in the Philippine economy and the country at large. In short, the government’s thinking on its feet; moving with developments and finessing its approach along the way. This is hands-on management – a refreshing change from a lot of what the country’s had to put up with in the past where department heads spent much of their time in office building private fiefdoms.

And while the IPP sticks closely to the spirit of the government’s socio-economic agenda, it also offers concrete investment solutions, for example to the pressing problem of rehabilitating drug addicts, allowing them to re-enter society. Similarly, proposed investment for climate-change projects is in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change which Duterte has just passed to the Senate for ratification.

Security. Terrorists killed in clash with army. Troops of the 2nd Ranger Scout Battalion on deployment in Sulu have killed five Abu Sayyaf terrorists, believed to be part of the kidnap gang which, a few days earlier, had beheaded a German hostage whose family had failed to raise a PHP30 million ransom. Eleven soldiers were also injured.

This action by the Ranger Scouts is the government’s first response to the execution of yacht-enthusiast, 70-year-old Jurgen Kantner, who was snatched by the rebels along with his wife, Sabine Merz (56), as they sailed close to the island of Tawi-Tawi in the southern reaches of the treacherous Sulu Archipelago last year. Shortly after the kidnap, Merz’s lifeless naked body was recovered by soldiers along with the couple’s yacht.

President Duterte apologised to the German Government, the people of Germany and Kantner’s family for being unable to save the yachtsman’s life. He was also angry and there’s little doubt that this latest atrocity has further galvanised efforts to destroy this small but deadly group which also threatens shipping and trade that passes through maritime bandit territory of the Sulu Sea.

According to Port2Port – a UK-based security-risk organisation – ransom payments from the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings in these waters has earned some US$7.3 million so far this year. Annually, some US$40 billon worth of cargo passes along that region’s shipping lane – among it US$700-800 million in Indonesian coal exports, Philippines bound to feed the country’s coal-hungry power-generation industry.

Meanwhile, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships, formed between 16 Asian countries, has become increasingly concerned about this region and is now advising vessels that before entering the Sibutu Passage – an 18-mile wide channel close to the island of Borneo, between the Sulu and Celebes Seas – they should first report to Philippine authorities and Eastern Sabah Security Command.

Increasingly, Abu Sayyaf is giving their cause an international dimension – most likely to prove its value to Islamic State with which it’s now aligned. If ever the government needed a further reason to wipe out the terrorists, therefore, the killing of the German yachtsman is likely to be it. He was the third foreign national to be beheaded by the militants in the last 10 months – last year, the group executed two Canadians whose families had also failed to raise the ransom money.

This killing, then, has further galvanised the government’s resolve to eradicate Abu Sayyaf – something which Western Mindanao Command chief, Major General Carlito Galvez, believes can be achieved well before the end of the year. “With the renewed vigor of those who are against it, [the Armed Forces of the Philippines, AFP] are optimistic that we will be able to crush the bandits within six months,” he said.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana promised the bandit force that they will “feel the wrath of the entire Filipino nation through the might of its armed forces”. Since the news of Kantner’s killing, Lorenzana has issued new guidelines to the AFP – we don’t know what these are but they’ll likely involve new and intensified rules of engagement – to quickly break the back of the Islamist group. Additional resources and a wider troop deployment are also part of the beefed-up measures.

Currently, Abu Sayyaf is holding at least 19 foreign hostages – including those from Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and the Netherlands – and seven Filipinos.

So there we have it, Foreign Affairs, the Economy, Investment, and Security – things about which readers want to know; as opposed to a hit piece – which we’ve seen a thousand times before – from an anti-Duterte organisation that’s about as wholesome as a snake-oil salesman masquerading as an English country vicar.

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