Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Freddie's second bite at Post-Courier ethics

WHAT has happened to Papua New Guinea's Post-Courier, the once fearless and crusading newspaper that set the tone for professionalism and ethics in the South Pacific? Yes, we know standards have been slipping for some time. But what is it with the Filipino "aliens" fiasco last week? Is an anti-Asian bias getting in the way of the facts? Media commentators around the region have reacted strongly over what appears to have been a lie.

Why would the newspaper defend this? A former editor-in-chief of the Rupert Murdoch-owned daily, Oseah Philemon, could hardly believe it.

Philemon, OBE, who came out of retirement as regional editor to head up the Momase bureau of the rival Malasian logging company's The National, snorted: “No editor in his right frame of mind would stand by any story if he knows – after being told the facts – that the story he published is wrong, incorrect in detail and ought to be retracted ... I am rather appalled that the Post-Courier can still hold its head high after committing the worst sin in journalism.”

Freddie Hernandez, a senior subeditor on The National, exposed the blatant example of yellow journalism in his blog Letters from Port Moresby last week. Some other media such as Pacific Scoop followed up. And the Parliamentary Bipartisan Committee investigating the anti-Asian riots in May now seems ready for the chop after losing credibility in this media mess. And now Freddie has followed up with this week with another condemnation of the Post-Courier, this time calling on Asian residents of Papua New Guinea to ostracise the newspaper:


By Freddie Hernandez in Port Moresby

WOULD you defend a blatant and deliberate lie? Yes, by all means … at least in PNG’s liberal media environment, Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid Post-Courier has shown in the past week that it would.

Not really. Because over the years, the Post-Courier has flaunted its sheer arrogance as it printed on its pages stories whose credibility were immediately questionable, but not bothering to admit to the transgression and to rectify it.

And worst, it has even fabricated anti-Asian reports, passed them on as truth, and for which the reporters and editors stood by them even to the demise of their own credibility.

One classic example which stands unparalleled yet in the Pacific was showcased on Page 1 by this paper just very recently.

It headlined a fabricated report that proved to be very damaging to the reputation of some 10,000 Filipinos here in PNG and peddled it across the nation as “the plain truth”.

I remember my country’s despot, President Marcos, who had once said that “lies when repeatedly uttered become the truth”.

As far as I am concerned, Marcos’ dictum and what the Post-Courier does in its every day reporting where it peddles lies here and there don’t differ that much. Henceforth, what this daily dishes out would always be deemed as lies, however hard you try to believe them, simply because the credibility has passed out of existence.

For one thing, it has allowed its cronies to malign and destroy some Asian reputations and institutions using its pages where lies had crawled all over, but denying those aggrieved the same opportunity of having their side on the issue at hand to see print in this very same paper, only to be told that such rejection was a management “business decision”.

Distressing events
The events that transpired last week have been the most unsettling, upsetting and stressing for the members of the Filipino expatriate community in Papua New Guinea.

On Tuesday, November 10, Pinoys in Port Moresby and across the country woke up to find themselves in the midst of alleged 16,000 illegal compatriots.

Having read the Post-Courier’s fabricated report that there are “16,000 illegal Filipinos out of the 19,000 who are in the country right now”, they were utterly horrified and in great shock.

A simple arithmetic would immediately show there would only be 3,000 Filipinos living and working legally in the country and they include a few hundreds of those who have acquired PNG citizenship and permanent resident (PR) status. This is not the case, however.

The source of the alleged statistics, according to the Post-Courier, was Philippine Ambassador to PNG, Madam Shirley Ho-Vicario, who, on Friday, November 6, purportedly testified at the Parliamentary Bipartisan Committee probing the anti-Asian riots last May.

In her alleged testimony before a panel chaired by MP Jamie Maxtone-Graham, Madam Ho-Vicario disclosed there are 19,000 Filipinos in PNG and of this, 80 percent, or 16,000, are illegal aliens.

The Maxtone-Graham panel wanted to know what triggered the marginalised Papua New Guineans to go into rioting and looting variety shops and grocery stores owned and operated by Chinese in the Highlands and in Port Moresby.

The locals are said to hate illegal aliens, particularly Asians whose numbers are growing because they feel that they are robbing them of jobs and livelihoods reserved for them under the law.

Flurry of emails
Shortly before noon, a flurry of emails was exchanged among Pinoy expatriates who expressed disbelief that there are 16,000 illegal Filipino workers in the country.

Joey Sena, president of the Filipino Association of PNG (FAPNG), called for sobriety and calm as he urged the members of the community to be vigilant for their own safety against possible physical harm that may arise following the Post-Courier report.

Madam Ho-Vicario said of the story: “This is a pure fabrication! How did the Post-Courier come up with these figures?”

“The Filipino community has been put at risk because of these anti-Asian sentiments, and I, as the representative of the Philippine government here in PNG, have been maligned by the report.

“I’m vehemently denying the report … it’s all fabricated … it has no factual basis … it’s unfounded and far from the truth.

“I demand that the Post-Courier retract the story and print the truth.

“There could never be 19,000 Filipinos living and working here in this country,” the Ambassador said.

“I never appeared on the said committee hearing on that day to give evidence on the anti-Asian riots.

“I was never interviewed on that matter or present at the Bipartisan Parliamentary Inquiry last Friday.

“I never knew who MP Philip Kikala is, I didn’t know how he looked … I just didn’t know him,” Madam Ho-Vicario rattled off.

“I would never be able to recognise him from Adam even if you put him in front of me unless he has his nametag pinned on his chest!”

MP Kikala was the source that provided the Post-Courier the fabricated figures of “19,000 Filipinos in PNG, of which 16,000 are illegal”.

Madam Ho-Vicario said there are only 10,120 expatriates in the country as of June 19. About 670 of them are permanent residents, 6,600 are temporary migrants (work permit and working visa holders) and the rest are holders of tourist visa and business visa.

Story defended
Just before I filed my story on the Ambassador’s denial, I called the Post-Courier’s editor-in-chief, Blaise Nangoi, for comment.

“We stand by our story,” he told me.

Nangoi said the Post-Courier's report was based on information its reporter had obtained from a source (Mr Kikala) that was at the parliamentary committee hearing last November 6 when Madam Ho-Vicario purportedly testified.

Categorically denying this, the Ambassador said: “I was never present at the Parliament last Friday”.

The National, the leading daily in PNG, carried the denial story the next day, Wednesday, November 11, and was headlined: “Philippine Embassy denies “aliens” report.

On that day, Maxtone-Graham sent an official letter to the Ambassador stating categorically "that you never appeared before my inquiry, either in person or through a representative on the date as stated by the Post-Courier. Neither have we received any written submission from your embassy."

MP testified
The paper stubbornly defended its claim on the presence of 16,000 illegal Filipinos. It reported that Kikala testified on a bipartisan committee hearing on Monday, November 9, that the ambassador “informed” him about the 16,000 illegal Filipinos in the country.

Now, it is very clear that the Post-Courier has confused itself in making the report in an effort to steer clear out of further embarrassment.

First, it reported that Madam Ho-Vicario appeared at the hearing on Friday, November 6, where she purportedly testified on the presence of 16,000 illegal Filipinos out of the 19,000 expatriates. But later, it backtracked and admitted that she never did so.

Then, the Post-Courier contradicted itself again when it reported in its November 12 edition that it was now Kikala who had testified at the committee hearing on November 9 when he declared that the ambassador “informed” him of the 16,000 illegal Filipinos.

However, instead of making Kikala’s testimony the main story for the next day, November 10, it was Madam Ho-Vicario’s fabricated appearance and concocted testimony last November 6 that made the headline.

And worse, Kikala was unable to tell the Post-Courier on what occasion did the ambassador divulge to him the derogatory information. Was it during a parliamentary bipartisan hearing? Was it during lunch or dinner? Or was it during a cocktail party?

From whom did Kikala obtain his statistics? Or, did he deliberately cook up some “blockbuster” story to get some attention and pluck himself out of non-revenue obscurity?

It is ironic that while the Ambassador has categorically said she “never knew MP Kikala or ever met him”, the MP insisted on claiming he obtained the information directly from her.

Just before Madam Ho-Vicario was posted in PNG as the Philippine government’s ambassador in February 2007, she was fully aware of the number of Filipinos that her embassy would be representing in the country. She knew too that PNG is a hardship post.

“There’s no way for me to commit the mistake of giving wrong figures pertaining to the number of Pinoys in Port Moresby,” she told me. “I’m not stupid.”

New recruits
Over the years, the number of Filipino expatriates here has played between 8,000 and 10,000, with many of them going home after their contracts expired, but only to be replaced by new recruits.

And the presence of illegal Filipino workers would be one of her concerns because every time they would be in trouble, they would come to the embassy for help. But there were not many, as the ambassador has noted since her posting more than two years ago now.

With very limited resources, the embassy has been dealing with cases involving illegal Filipinos who would come for assistance would be a nagging problem even if there are only a handful of them.

How much more with 16,000? There’s just no sense for her to just dish out statistics just for kicks without creating problems later for the expatriate Filipinos and the embassy itself.

But then, if ever there are 16,000 illegal Filipinos, it should not be a problem for the Philippine Embassy to deal with. It belongs to the PNG Immigration Department.

And if there are that many, how come the PNG Government is never aware of them?

Now, the Filipino community is asking: “What is Kikala’s agenda? Why is he trying to connive with the Post-Courier in maligning Filipinos and foment racist hatred among Papua New Guineans against them? Are they moonlighting as racists?”

Why did the Post-Courier reject a whole-page paid advertorial that the Filipino Association of PNG (FAPNG) was trying to place with the daily for the Monday, November 16, edition?

In this advertorial, the association is asking the Post-Courier to rectify its story and correct the negative impression about the 10,000 Filipino expatriates that has been generated by its irresponsible reporting.

It said: “The Post-Courier report has caused enormous damage to our reputation as peace-loving, law-abiding and charitable residents of the international community in Papua New Guinea.

“Now, we are suddenly concerned over our safety, because erroneous reporting has created animosity among Papua New Guineans who feel marginalised by the present state of affairs in their own country because of enterprising Asians who they feel are robbing them of their livelihood and jobs."

Abridged from Freddie's blog - read the full blog here.

Pictured: Top: The Philippine Ambassador to PNG, Madam Shirley Ho-Vicario. Photo: Freddie Hernandez. Above: Jamie Maxtone-Graham, chair of the controversial bipartisan committee.

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