Monthly Archives: September 2011

Press room dynamics and jitters

The Department of National Defense organized a Communications and News Exchange (CNEX) forum on the 16th of September 2011 at the Public Information Agency building in Quezon City. The following day, the Office of Public Affairs posted the video on YouTube. Present that day were the Secretary of National Defense, Voltaire Gazmin, GEN Eduardo Oban, CSAFP, and two members of his staff.

It was an interesting glimpse into the dynamics of the press room. The SND’s opening statements clearly were crafted to steer questions in the direction of the AFP modernization program and build up territorial defense capability. Things however did not turn out that way.

Internal Security Operations (ISO) remained top-of-mind for the press. Questions started with peace talks with the CPP-NPA and Jemaah Islamiyah. Afterwards the bulk of the questions centered on the re-arrest of MGEN Carlos Garcia for violations of the Article of War. The SND and his staff were clearly prepared for this eventuality with the presence of the Judge Advocate General, BGEN Gilberto Jose Roa. However this, and the other lines of questioning that prevailed, failed to maximize the presence of Maj. Gen. Roy Devartadura, Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans (J5) and the former head of the AFP Modernization Office.

As the forum wound down, the PIA fielded its own reporter into the fray: Gideon Kapayaw. As of writing, it is unclear if he took to the floor to shift the balance of questions back to the AFP modernization program, or if he was tasked to focus on a line of questioning that was oriented towards the DND’s external defense obligations from the start. Regardless of his intended role, his question was . . . awkward . . . in a general sense and good fodder for this blog.

The priceless moment starts at 45:40, when what seemed to be an unprepared Mr. Kapayaw (the forum moderator had to call him twice) initiated the following exchange:

PIA: Sir I have a question about the “marching orders” of DND ever since the Beijing visit of President Aquino. Sa ngayon po ano ba ang ano po ba ang ating . . . ang marching orders ng DND (followed by a second question to CSAFP Oban about the status of the Spratlys dispute)

Speculatively, Mr. Kapayaw could have sought information about whether or not the Beijing visit had eased tensions in the Spratlys and if it affected the AFP’s defensive posture in the area. However his unfortunate choice of words: “marching orders”, seemed to imply that the AFP was sitting its hands waiting for something to do. The AFP has been engaged in near continuous combat for over fifty years, fighting a multi-front insurgency, and periodically engaging in external entanglements. It is, therefore, constantly carrying out orders. An incredulous SND, who one could imagine had a “WTF” thought bubble floating above his head, gave the nervous reporter a second chance to collect his thoughts and restate his question with the following query:

SND: Ah I’m sorry paki-ulit nga ulit yung question na related sa akin

Unfortunately, like a moth to the flame . . .

PIA: What are the marching orders of DND from our president ever since the Beijing visit?

The resulting response was a simple re-statement of the AFP’s mandate to defend the republic, and a clarification that no new instructions were issued specifically as a result of the Beijing visit. The second half of his question to CSAFP Oban was ignored. Everyone gets nervous, and gets the better of everyone at one point or another. Most of us, however, are lucky enough not get such moments on camera. Nice try Mr. Kapayaw.

The SND’s opening statements seemed to fall on deaf ears. While a lone question about the establishment of a National Coast Watch System did come out, it appeared that the reporters present already had their “marching orders” about what details to report upon. The J-5, a man many a military enthusiast would arguably give an arm to speak with, barely got a word out.

Ultimately, the press gets to decide what is news worthy and what isn’t. They have their reasons (e.g., target audience, ratings, etc.) for their focal points.

Given this fact, it begs the question: If the DND really had a specific point that they wanted to get across, why not write their own article, post it on their Websites and numerous Facebook accounts, and just copy-furnish the press? That way even if the report doesn’t match up with the press’ priorities, it still gets to the people.

Using Wikipedia to spice up a report

In December 2009, the Bids and Awards Committee of the Department of National Defense issued a Notice of Award for the Combat Utility Helicopter acquisition project of the Philippine Air Force (PAF). The winning bidder was the Polish company Wytwornia Sprzetu Komunikacyjnego “PZL Swidnik” S.A., which offered its W-3 Sokol intermediate helicopter. Since the announcement, little if any details about the helicopter were ever released from official sources.

Then in September, 2010, the Philippine Star, care of Roel Pareno, produced the following article with surprisingly detailed descriptions of the helicopter’s armament. The following is an excerpt.


Air Force acquires 8 Polish-made attack helicopters
By Roel Pareño (The Philippine Star) Updated September 18, 2010 12:00

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – The capability of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) will be enhanced with the purchase of eight Polish-made attack helicopters.

PAF chief Lt. Gen. Oscar Rabena announced yesterday that the Air Force has already acquired eight brand new Sokol W-3WA Falcon helicopters from the PZL Swidnik Co. of Poland.

Rabena said the helicopters, purchased at a cost of P2.8 billion, are all heavily equipped.

Rabena said the twin-engine combat helicopters would be delivered early next year.

PAF spokesman Lt. Col. Miguel Ernesto Okol said the delivery of the helicopters would also include the training of the pilots and proper use of the weaponry for crewmen.

Okol said Sokol Falcon helicopter has weapons that include a GSz-23L gun, Strzala-2 AAMs missiles and Gad fire-control system.

The helicopter is also equipped with night vision capability, compatible instrumentation and armored seats that protect crewmembers from small arms fire.

He said the other helicopter units would be equipped with starboard-mounted 23mm GSz-23 twin-barrel gun; Mars-2 launchers for sixteen 57mm S-5 or 80mm S-8 unguided rockets, ZR-8 bomblet dispensers, Platan mine laying packs, and six cabin window mounted AK 47, 5.45mm Tantal or PKM machine guns.

Okol said the helicopters could be used for rescue missions.

< Edited >

The weapons list in the article surprised many long-time military enthusiasts. It didn’t make sense at multiple levels.

First of all, the CUH was supposed to be a transport helicopter. It was meant to operate in the same manner as the UH-1H Iroqouis (Huey) that is currently the PAF’s principal troop-mover. The UH-1s are only armed with two side-facing M-60 machine guns for self-defense purposes, thus reserving most of the helicopter’s lifting power to moving men and materiel.

The second, and more alarming, concern was the potential logistical impact of the list. The report mentioned weapons that did not currently existing in the PAF inventory, and therefore would be specialized purchases for a relatively small fleet of aircraft. The guns listed would introduce new types of ammunition that were not manufactured by the Government Arsenal, and would therefore have to be imported — again, for a very small fleet of aircraft.

The report just seemed wrong. As it turns out, it was.

Not long after the report came out, military-enthusiast community inquiries made their way to the PAF spokesman himself regarding the details that the report claimed that he had shared. Apparently . . . those details did not come from him and words had been put in his mouth.

In a effort to add spice to the article, the reporter reportedly inserted details that he had gotten from a Wikipedia article about the Sokols into his report. He had done so with little regard for whether or not the data was actually applicable.

It has never been made clear if the decision to embellish was the reporter’s handiwork, or if was an editorial decision.

An unprepared reporter

BRP Gregorio del Pilar (PF-15), the new Philippine Navy flagship, arrived from the United States on the 21st of August, 2010 and was officially welcomed on the 23rd of August. It was the largest acquisition for the Philippine Navy since the arrival of Frank Besson class Logistical Support Vessels (LSV) in 1988 and was understandably the focal point of much attention in the military-enthusiast community (e.g.,, etc.)

While some gaffs in media reporting for the event had been expected, one report in particular drew heightened attention for the poor quality of his report: the arrival ceremony coverage by GMA News c/o Mark Salazar.

His report was a only 2:25 long. But he managed to pack a fair number of errors within that interval. Many things that he got wrong were actually already covered in numerous news reports leading up to that day, and were even re-answered by the Flag-Officer-In-Command (FOIC) of the Philippine Navy himself the night before, on a rival news channel. (A link to this interview is available at the bottom of this post for reference).

Here is Mark Salazar’s report:

The following table lists several issues with his report.

Issue  Fact check
At 01:04 of his report, he claims that the ship cannot reach the Spratleys Earlier in the same sentence, the reporter stated that the ship had a range of 14,000 miles and had actually sailed to the Philippines from California, USA. Since the western-most occupied island in the Spratly island group is only 736 miles from Manila, and 480 miles from Ulungan Bay in Palawan, how can a ship that can cross the Pacific, with a range that he himself said is in the thousands of miles, not be able to reach such a relatively short distance?
At 01:38 the reporter claims that cost figures for the boat have not yet been released During the transfer ceremony in May 2011, when the “USCGC Hamilton” formally became the “PF-15” (provisionally named BRP Gregorio del Pilar), the AFP issued a press release that stated that the ship was acquired for P450M. The night before, VADM Alexander Pama reaffirmed this value on a TV interview. At-cost figures were also published on the DSCA Website:
At 01:54, the reporter claims that the PN does not yet have plans to acquire additional ships Five months prior, GMA News, the reporter’s home network, actually released one of the first reports that more than one Hamilton class boat would be acquired, c/o a report by Amita O. Legaspi. See:

VADM Pama confirmed that two additional Hamilton class WHECs were already in the pipeline in the above-mentioned interview with a rival network.

At 01:58, the reporter claims that the ship was bought with funds from the General Appropriations Act This report is erroneous on two key matters. First, specific acquisition items are not mentioned in the General Appropriations Act. The AFP’s P5B modernization allocation is a single line item that simply states how much was set aside for equipment purchases. See here. The Act does not go into specifics and does not even discuss the AFP Modernization Trust Fund which is where funds are actually pooled. Second, the statement completely ignores the often reported fact that funds for this ship were sourced from the proceeds from Malampaya. It was a DOE funded project.Albeit reported later, Florencio Abad, Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, clarified that the amount was drawn from a special account maintained by the Department of Energy for Malampaya revenues. See here .

It was a classic case of a reporter who did not understand the topic upon which he was tasked to report. In the Internet age, there really ought to be no excuse for going into an assignment cold. But alas . . . that’s exactly what happened here.

Had Mr. Salazar, or whoever allowed him to go on assignment unprepared, simply took notes from the following interview, practically all the gaffs above would have been avoided.

ANC: Rundown

Is PH defense reporting getting worse?

Military enthusiasts have come to expect that the Philippine press will almost always get details about key Philippine military developments wrong. Gaffes such as incorrect use of terms (e.g., use of the term “tank” to refer to anything colored green and has armor) to erroneous descriptions of equipment (e.g., called T-28 Trojans “Tora-Toras” and reporting them as World War II vintage aircraft) are so common place, they now almost go unnoticed.

Arguably, the press tends to get away these errors because, in the end, the only readers who care about these factoids are people who are immersed in the defense establishment, either as professionals or as interested observers. These mistakes have been around for years, and save for over-done slaps on the forehead on the part of some readers . . . little harm is ever actually done.

Recently, however, there have been a series of reports whose deficiencies reflect a surprising level of irresponsibility on the part of journalists:

  • Embellishment of articles with Wikipedia details, with little or no regard for whether or not the information was applicable to subject at hand
  • Reporters who don’t even bother to understand the subject upon which they were reporting
  • Mis-quotes and mis-attribution of information

If media practitioners can be so cavalier about defense reports, what shortcuts would they take with their other stories? Are preparation and research becoming optional for the journalists of today? Do editors no longer care if their people do the legwork required to put together a proper story?

The easy reaction to this perceived decline in report quality is to join the chorus of incessant complaints about all things Filipino, throw one’s arms in the air, and declare:  “ganoon talaga ang ‘meeja'”. While that response is easy, it doesn’t really do anyone any good.

A healthy, responsible, press is an important part of a modern democracy. Government press releases, social media, and the blogosphere are all useful sources of information. But there is something to be said for information that is collected by professional journalists and vetted by, theoretically, knowledgeable and mature editors. If the gap between reality and the ideal really is widening, then this casts doubt on the usefulness of the Philippine press. Our democracy will be greatly diminished if this trend is allowed to continue.

This blog seeks to take an alternative track. It seeks to engage media practitioners in an effort to improve defense reporting, and in so doing, promote improvement in other areas of interest. This site is a modest attempt to remind the press that the quality of their writing matters.

This blog draws inspiration from a Website called: That site’s self-proclaimed charter is to help designers “Learn Good Design by Looking at Bad Design”. In the same vein, this blog hopes to encourage journalists to excel in their fields by providing examples of work by their peers who do the exact opposite and represent the bottom-of-the-barrel of their industry.

It is the author’s hope that site provides media practitioners with useful feedback about their work that they can help them improve their craft.