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News fakery

Last week I came across a number of online posts from pro-Duterte friends, breathlessly announcing that no less than the US ambassador to the United Nations, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, had admonished the U.N. General Assembly to “give enough space to President Duterte to run his nation,” and then continued with more words of praise for our beleaguered leader’s war against drugs.

This news immediately raised my hackles. Had the US so quickly done a 180-degree turn-about from its officially critical view of Duterte’s record on human rights? No matter how much he and Trump seem to have hit it off, these kinds of diplomatic scripts are actually run by the career bureaucrats at Foggy Bottom, where any policy shifts are glacially slow.

Even if this had been true, why was Ms. Haley and not the US ambassador to Manila, the poker-faced Sung Kim, the one breaking the news? And why before the UN General Assembly, and not a more discreet venue where the inevitable media fallout from such a radioactive speech could be better handled?

My hackles settled down when I learned that the source of the news was the redoubtable Yen Makabenta, the Manila Times columnist, a veteran newsman and part of the late President Marcos’ stable of first-rate writers. His source in turn was an online site belonging to Al-Jazeera, the Dubai-based wire service that has earned a reputation for news scoops otherwise unavailable to Western services.

***

As it turned out, my initial instincts were, as usual, correct. The Al-Jazeera site turned out to be fake. And the U.S. Embassy here flat-out denied the report about Ambassador Haley, pointedly commenting that news about Haley was readily available, and could easily be verified, on the website of the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

I can’t blame Yen for this incident, not when my own techie skills are roughly equivalent to a second-grader’s. At the very most, I would guess that Yen—who, like me, belongs to another era—evinced a level of trust in what he took to be “official/reputable news sources” that is totally undeserved by most of social media.

This is what happens when you let digital technology loose in a Western-originated pop culture that totally disclaims any interest in any kind of standards, whether personal, professional, or moral. Whether something’s good or bad simply depends on one’s point of view. And so, paradoxically, the more information is spewed out at us, the less reliable it becomes, and so the less usable by us.

Of course, to hear the political opposition tell it, they themselves would never, ever be caught anywhere near fake news. They certainly went to town on the trickery of the fake Al-Jazeera site, just as they’ve been beating up on honest errors by the young guys and gals at Philippine News Agency, or on the rhetorical extremes sometimes indulged in by the passionate Mocha Uson before her blog followers in their millions.

The thing of it, though, is that the opposition were veteran purveyors of fake news practically even before social media was invented. It’s what they used, when they were still in power, to put down their political victims like GMA and Renato Corona, or to whitewash the offenses they committed with PDAF, or DAP, or the threefold increase of smuggling and major crimes—including drug usage—under their yellow president.

Today those past offenses are being dragged back out into the open, and the responsible parties are being called to account, one by one. Could this explain the sudden fuss that they’re raising over fake news? That’s a question even a fake news site could easily answer. 

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Here’s an example of the detritus bequeathed to us by the previous Palace occupants:

Our good friend Cesar Chavez, a media man who also happens to be undersecretary for Rail at the Department of Transportation, is being pilloried for allegedly refusing to pay for the services of a company called BURI, the maintenance contractor of the MRT3 system.

Well, USec Cesar has a different story to tell. It turns out that we the taxpayers were being billed for a P4-M vehicle logic unit (VLU), a precision device that serves as a brain of the onboard train signaling system. It’s “a highly specialized equipment that functions as the train’s automatic protection system,” he says.

However, the original manufacturer, Bombardier, showed no record of such a maintenance purchase. So where did BURI end up buying this vital piece of safety equipment? From a store called Diamond Pearl, on Bangkal street, the Makati equivalent of the Banaue automotive repair row in Quezon City.  And who owns Diamond Pearl? The same characters behind BURI.

One of those characters is a guy named Marlo de la Cruz, who was previously identified in a House hearing by Congressman Jericho Nograles as one of those accused by former Czech ambassador to the Philippines Josef Rychtar of trying to extort $30-M from the Czech train manufacturer Inekon.

***

Now, what has been the performance record of MRT-3 under the maintenance ministrations of the BURI guys?

Well, according to the USec, there were  3,824 instances of train removals, 833 cases of  unloading incidents, 98 service  interruptions and 6 derailments from January 2016 to July 2017. Almost all of them could be attributed to neglected maintenance: smoke emissions, Automatic Train Protection failure, train door failure, brake failure. 

What is particularly “unacceptable and unprecedented” were the cases of derailment. The standard here is simple: zero derailments, just as the airline industry is accountable for zero plane crashes. With six derailments on BURI’s maintenance watch, one might say that these guys have set a kind of world record. 

As a matter of fact, this hapless company has already racked up P27.5 million in penalties for “substantial failure to meet key performance indicators,” and has been denied payment for P59.5 million worth of spare parts due to “lack of documentation”. Maybe they should be asking for more receipts from Diamond Pearl.

Readers can write me at [email protected]

Topics: Gary Olivar , Opinion , MRT-3 , Nikki Haley , President Duterte
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