Tue, 18 May 2021

Screengrab from ABS-CBN News' YouTube video.

CHEERS TO ABS-CBN's Chiara Zambrano for her enterprising coverage of the current situation in the West Philippine Sea. Zambrano had reported in March on the mooring of Chinese vessels around the Julian Felipe Reef, pointing out that by month's end, 44 still remained in the area but around 200 had dispersed to other reefs. She was then flying over the West Philippine Sea in a military aircraft which included journalists from other media organizations.

Later in April, Zambrano took her crew to Philippine fishing grounds Sabina Shoal and Ayungin Shoal, both around 50 nautical miles from Julian Felipe Reef, to check on Filipino fisherfolk and how they have been coping with the heavy presence of Chinese militia sea craft in the area. She was able to tell not one, but two important stories.

On April 8, Zambrano reported that the Chinese Coast Guard chased the Filipino civilian boat on which she and her news team were aboard to enter Ayungin Shoal, even as the Filipino captain turned the boat when asked by the Chinese for identification. The coast guard ship followed them for almost an hour. After this, Zambrano said two missile-armed attack vessels from the Chinese Navy appeared and followed them for twenty minutes as they headed toward the coast of Palawan.

Zambrano interviewed fishermen anchored in Sabina Shoal, who said that with Chinese ships standing guard, they are effectively prevented entry to Philippine reefs. They said they have to stay longer at sea and search further for the chance of getting a bigger catch. The length of time spent in the seas adds to the burden of being far from home for long periods, as revealed in her report aired on April 14.

Three military officials reacted to Zambrano's coverage- and they were not in agreement with one another. AFP Spokesperson Edgard Arevalo issued a statement on April 9: "While we understand the journalists' insatiable desire to be ahead in reporting, we appeal to them to exercise prudence in the course of their job."

Cirilito Sobejana, AFP Chief of Staff, acknowledged on April 11 the value of media coverage as complementary to their surveillance, adding that video footage could be used in filing appropriate charges against China.

On April 12, Vice Admiral Ramil Enriquez, commander of the AFP Western Command, reviewed the footage with Zambrano in the room and downplayed the harassment involved in the incident. He said the Chinese vessels were merely observing the Filipino boat, claiming these would have caught up with the Filipino vessel if the latter were really being chased.

Media reports were limited to recording these statements, without critical analysis that disagreements within the military reflect a weak institutional stand on the issue. No one asked why the AFP allows Chinese vessels to tail Filipino boats or to ask them to identify themselves while inside their own country.

The criticism of Zambrano's reporting was inappropriate and misplaced. Zambrano has kept a watchful eye on these troubled waters, indicating the country's effective loss of control over territorial seas that had been established as part of the Philippine's EEZ. In doing so, she has been able to draw public attention to an issue that should engage all Filipinos, as it concerns issues of national sovereignty.

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