Earning credibility

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Ferdinand E. Marcos, the Philippine government’s Official Gazette’s social media post finally said in its third revision of the caption accompanying the late dictator’s September 11 birthday photo, was “the longest serving President of the country for almost 21 years.”

After receiving a deluge of criticism for what many Netizens saw as an attempt at historical revisionism, the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) revised the caption in its Official Gazette Facebook post. It then deleted the photo, only to repost it with that final caption.

The original had claimed that Marcos declared martial law in 1972 to “suppress a communist insurgency and secessionism in Mindanao,” and followed that up with the equally disingenuous assertion that he “stepped down from the Presidency” in 1986 “to avoid bloodshed during the uprising known as People Power.”

As awkward as the final caption was — a competent editor would have revised it to read “In office for 21 years, Marcos was the longest serving President of the country” — there’s a reason why Marcos holds that dubious distinction.

That reason is his declaration of martial law in September, 1972, which stopped the elections of 1973 and kept him in power for the next 14 years despite the 1938 Constitution’s limiting the Philippine president’s term to four years with one reelection.

Marcos had been president for seven years in 1972, having been elected in 1965 and then reelected in 1969. His second term should have ended in 1973, so another president could be elected. Presidential Proclamation 1081 placing the entire country under martial law changed all that — and had not the People Power civilian uprising of 1986 supported by a military mutiny not taken place, he would have been president for life.

He did not voluntarily relinquish the presidency to “avoid bloodshed during the uprising known as People Power.” He was forced out of it after years of the worst human rights violations in this country’s history (100,000 arrested and detained; 35,000 tortured; some 4,000 murdered from 1972 onwards), driving the country steadily into the ground through the world class plunder of the treasury to the tune of an estimated $35 billion, and widespread, centralized corruption orchestrated from the Marcos lair in Malacanang.

Neither did Marcos declare martial law to “suppress a communist insurgency,” although that was his official reason together with claims that “a leftist-rightist” conspiracy was threatening the Republic. (To lend some credence to the “communist-oligarch conspiracy” tale, the regime staged an “ambush” on the car — Juan Ponce Enrile wasn’t in it — of the then defense secretary to justify the immediate imposition of martial law.)

His real reason was to stay in power, and he did so for an additional 14 years after 1972 by suppressing all forms of opposition and dissent, emasculating an already supine Supreme Court he had earlier stacked with his appointees, abolishing Congress, and turning the entire Armed Forces of the Philippines into his private army.

The key word is “revision,” the Marcos family and its various associates, allies, partners and cronies having made rewriting history part of their life’s work — in preparation, they hope, for one of the Marcoses’ eventually retaking the Philippine Presidency. A task the family can’t do alone, although its billions do help, for this enterprise it has enlisted the help of, among others, shadowy groups demanding that Marcos, Sr. be buried in the “Libingan ng mga Bayani” (literally, Heroes’ Cemetery) — and, it seems, one of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s own flunkies who’s now conveniently resident in the PCO, and who is widely presumed to have written the original caption.

His name is Marco Angelo Cabrera, who, according to PCO assistant secretary Ramon Cualoping III, worked in the Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. campaign for the vice presidency in the last (May 9) elections. Given the possibility that he wrote the offensive, inaccurate and blatantly partisan original caption, the question of course is why he was hired in the first place.

Cabrera denied having a conflict of interest between the public’s right to accurate information and his furthering the interests of the Marcoses, and said the PCO knew of his involvement in the Marcos, Jr. campaign. Cualoping himself argued that “political color” not being a basis for hiring PCO staff, they got Cabrera on board because he’s qualified, and is, in fact, “brilliant.”

If the caption — not only is it inaccurate and partisan but also as awkward as Cualoping’s explanation — is an example of Cabrera’s “brilliance,” I’m afraid we may have to ask Cualoping what he means by that adjective. Does he mean “brilliant” in the way that Marcos, Sr. — a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Law and a bar topnotcher — was brilliantly focused on amassing as much wealth and power as possible, and who was brilliant enough to see in the provision of the 1938 Constitution empowering the president of the Philippines to declare martial law the “legal” means with which to realize his ambitions even if it be at the cost of his country and people?

Or does brilliant mean being not only knowledgeable and demonstrably skillful as well as ethical?

While we await Cualoping’s clarification on what he means by “brilliant,” it’s not too late — in fact it’s extremely early — for the PCO to consider being truthful and accurate among the qualifications of the staff it hires.

The failure to communicate with the public with a decent level of accuracy, fairness and reliability has been the bane of government communication efforts, that enterprise being saddled with years and years of citizen conviction that governments always lie.

That was of course a correct assessment during the Marcos regime, the so-called information ministry of which made a career out of lying to the public. Cynicism with government issuances has since been embedded in the public consciousness — and the conflicting statements that have recently been emanating from the PCO, administration spokespersons, various advisers, etc., have not helped disabuse the public of the belief that it should pay as little attention as possible to government claims and statements.

The PCO and its attached offices should be among the most reliable — meaning accurate, fair and free from the PR, brownie point intentions of politicians — sources of information about government and related issues as well as events that the public and the media can access.

To transform it into a credible font of information requires taking a long hard look at its mandate and putting its house in order, since it is charged with providing information about a government that has something new, shocking, or unusual to say and do almost every day. Otherwise, the Duterte administration might as well abolish it as an agency not worth the expense and the aggravation in these unusual and interesting times.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image from the Official Gazette Facebook Page.

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