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ONE OF the long standing allies of the Philippines, Japan is also one of the country's top partners in trade and development. The two countries are not embroiled in controversy nor in questions of sovereignty. Japan also has territorial disputes with China as both countries claim the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
But Duterte's working visit to one of the strongest regional players cannot be without its inherent importance. The press however got hung up over another relevant issue: the Philippine delegation's huge number and the selection of its participants.
CMFR monitored the coverage of three broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2's TV Patrol, GMA-7's 24 Oras, TV5's Aksyon, CNN Philippines' News Night) and selected online news sites from May 27 to June 2.
Much of the coverage focused on the issue of the 200-member delegation, including 16 Cabinet secretaries, who accompanied Duterte to Japan. Ambassador Jose Laurel V was repeatedly quoted in reports, particularly because he told the media that the trip was a reward to officials. Laurel denied that the trip was a junket, as he said that Nikkei, the sponsor of the event, shouldered the expenses of the president and his high-ranking officials.
Coverage followed up with the responses of some Cabinet secretaries, as well as celebrities reported to have flown to Japan, on the issue of paying for their flights and accommodations. The media did not seek confirmation from Nikkei of its shouldering the expenses of delegates.
National politics got into the picture as some reports took note of the Duterte's meeting with aspirants for Speaker of the House of Representatives, although reports did not ask why this had to be part of the president's agenda in Japan.
Curiously, Duterte's participation in the conference itself was not discussed at length in the news. Reports opted for the usual quoted highlights of his speech, including his remark that he loved China, but asked whether it was right for the country to claim a whole ocean. This could have been pursued as a reflection of the president's comfort level with Shinzo Abe, which could evolve a stronger role for Japan in Philippine foreign policy.
As coverage of the trip quickly waned, most news reports limited their content to noting the PHP300 billion worth of trade and business deals the Philippines had secured. Rappler was the only one to provide a complete list of these agreements signed during the trip.
Coverage of the president's overseas visits remains on a surface level for most of the Philippine media. In the case of the Japan trip, common geopolitical interests needed to be brought forward for analysis. It was unfortunate that media trained their eyes only on the questionable size of the Philippine delegation, an issue that does merit criticism but could have been given less airtime and space.
The exchange between anchors and field reporters can provide a better interpretation of the news. Not all primetime newscasts devote time to this practice, and news framing can vary among programs in the same network.
Anchors Jessica Soho and Kara David posed analytical and critical questions about Duterte's working visit, highlighting foreign policy concerns. In the GMA News TV newscast State of the Nation last May 28, Soho asked reporter Ian Cruz, who was covering in Japan, whether the trip can be regarded as Duterte's "balancing act" to his China-heavy foreign policy. Soho also asked whether the Nikkei conference can be considered as Japan's counter-strategy to China's Belt and Road Forum. These questions were sorely missing in primetime news.
Cruz explained that the event was indeed significant in building strategic alliances to defend security in the region. He said that world leaders were participating in the meeting, and Japan was looking forward to hearing what Duterte would say. David, standing in for Soho in the newscast's June 1 edition, noted that Duterte's remark against Chinese occupation in the South China Sea was a departure from his usual stance on the issue. She asked Cruz whether Duterte was saying this only because he was in Japan. Cruz answered that the remark was off-script and caught many in the audience by surprise, but recalled that the president had said before that he would raise the issue sometime in the future.