THERE is no question about President Duterte travelling around the globe to promote the Philippines to investors and tourists and to make the world know the country’s aspiration to reach out and partner with as many global leaders as possible. 

What is questionable, however, is the size of his contingent, particularly from the Presidential Communications Office (PCO).

Palace sources have confirmed to OpinYon that some “blessed” officials and staff there get to regularly travel free using people’s money five days or a week ahead of the Chief Executive.

These lucky globe trotters even stay in the foreign country long after the official delegation had left supposedly to wrap up and attend to whatever has remained unattended to by the official delegation. 


Luckiest of them all

The PCO has assistant secretaries for administration and finance; policy and legislative affairs; legal, operations and special concerns; strategic communications; Mindanao affairs.

But the luckiest of them all is the ASEC for content and messaging.

It is because she gets to all the foreign travels four days to one week ahead of the presidential visit and is not paid on a per diem basis but on actual expense basis (so if she goes to a five star hotel and plush restaurants, she bills her expenses to the government). 

In all her foreign visits, she tags along with her the director for media relations who gets to enjoy the same perks and duration of stay like her. 

It is said the director for Media Accreditation and Relations Office (MARO) is not seen often in the office because she is too busy trotting the globe at the expense of taxpayers. They both came from TV5 group, where PCO Secretary Martin Andanar was also from. 


First Time

This is the first time such emoluments (expense basis allowances) and longer days of travel are being granted to a director and assistant secretary. 

Perhaps, previous administrations allowed this for Cabinet secretaries but rules on following the UN matrix for travel expenses have always prevailed for those below.  

Private media groups are said to be travelling at their own expense (fares, billeting and food) but mobility is provided by the PCO only for the Malacanang Press Corps. 

It is said some foreign correspondents covering previous visits in ASEAN countries tried to hitch a ride on the vehicle allotted for MPC but were turned down by the MARO onsite on orders of the assistant secretary for content and messaging. 


PCO Contingent

The PCO under which is the Radio Television Malacanang (RTVM) the official videographer-documenter and broadcast- relay (including live streaming) of all Presidential activities here and abroad is effectively doing its job in transmitting all speeches, meetings and functions of the president, in real time.  

An advance team usually composed of three to five people from RTVM conducts ocular inspections (along with protocol, Presidential Management Staff and Presidential Security Group) to each and every venue of the visit or meeting to find out where cameras should be installed.  

Also, a group from MARO that attends to every need of journalists covering the beat and foreign correspondents wanting to be accredited in his presidential travels deploys two days ahead two people to arrange billeting, logistics and venues and facilities. 

They depend solely on the per diem allowed by the government (based on a United Nations matrix) for lodging and meals but which they have to account for after every travel. 

There is also the Radyo ng Bayan and PTV4 crew that goes ahead in the foreign travel, to build up a scenario and set the tone for the visit both for the head of state and for its citizenry to appreciate the importance of such travel. 

A reporter each from Radyo ng Bayan and PTV4 are deployed two days ahead of the visit, also to build up the scenario and tone for the visit through press releases. 

Then, there is the reporter and transcriber from the Presidential News Desk and the cameramen (at least two per visit) from the News and Information Bureau who also travel a day ahead of the president. 

Travelling with the President on board his plane is another team of two from RTVM, one each from PTV4 and Radyo ng Bayan, and a close-in reporter from the PND in addition to his Cabinet, including the secretary of Presidential Communications Office, a spokesman (not necessary of course) and a coterie from the business sector. 


Cost to benefit 

The product of RTVM, Radyo ng Bayan and PTV4 can readily be appreciated because of the live feeds on radio, TV and the internet. 

As such, whether they are deployed ahead or accompanying the President, the public has a full understanding of where and how their taxes are being used. 

Photos sent by the Malacanang Photo section are used the following days by the newspapers, which have not sent people in these trips. 


Questionable Outputs

But the outputs of MARO and PND (at one story per venue or speech) and considering that they are there days ahead including their heads (the assistant secretary and the director of MARO who go by actual expenses and leave five days before actual visit) are highly questionable, to say the least, and their expenses are utterly unjustifiable.  

MPC reporters who do not travel abroad are complaining that they can’t even get stories from the PND and MARO as much as they can by simply watching the live stream of RTVM and PTV4. 

Why then the need for such useless people in these visits? Why are taxpayers being made to shoulder for a useless expense, which only benefit the itchy feet of just a few social climbers who want to show off their influence through such travels? 

Why is Andanar allowing this to continue? Where is the Commission on Audit? Has PCO made an accounting of its foreign travels and the cost to benefit ratios of such travels? 


Travels so Far

Since assuming the presidency last July, Duterte has gone to more parts of the world in less than six months than all his predecessors combined.  

His first travel was last September 6 to 8  in Laos for the leaders’ summit of the Association of Southeast Asian nations, where he was also supposed to meet on the sidelines with President Barrack Obama of the United States and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

Obama snubbed him after he cursed and cussed Obama and threatened to sever ties with America. 

Next stop was a working visit to Indonesia where he signed a maritime security arrangement with President Joko Widodo and negotiated with Widodo to spare Mary Jane Veloso from death, which was not granted. 

Then he made a state visit to Vietnam where he forged tighter friendship and cooperation also as regards the South China Sea maritime conflict. 

Then he pursued his trip to Brunei, which was originally scheduled but called off on Sept. 4 and 5 because of the Davao bombing,  

As of this writing, Duterte is still winding up his visit in Lima Peru where he attended the leaders’ summit of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and where he had a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed his desire for the Philippines to be part of the European Union. 

The President plans to fly to Russia before 2016 ends, where he expects to order missiles from that country. 

His remaining visits for the remainder of 2016 have not yet been divulged but suffice to say, he has travelled more places in less than six months, aside from virtually circling the 7,100 islands of the Philippines many times over in that period. 

A story from the GMA News Online last August 25 stated that Duterte’s travel budget (under the proposed 2017 budget) has soared by P1.8 billion, almost seven times the P312.9 million in 2015 intended for Presidential travels.  

For someone who professes simplicity and humility, the red carpet treatments and the travel bugs must have bitten him so hard he now has no qualms about travelling in style at every opportunity. 

But he claims that “whenever he goes home to Davao City every weekends, he doesn’t spend a single centavo,” (naturally since it is the taxpayers who pay for all of them). 

Earlier he told his Cabinet members not to fly business class when travelling making himself as an example by using commercial flights when flying back to Davao. 

During the budget deliberation, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said some P15 billion of the P20 billion will be allotted for the expenses in hosting the 50th Association of Southeast Asian nations next year. 


Expanding Ties

Forbes magazine said that Duterte is following Vietnam’s “agnostic, multi-country foreign policy that invites ties with rival superpowers, since the Philippine military is ranked 51 of 126 nations ranked by database. 

He got from China and Japan, investments particularly in infrastructure for his impoverished country, just like Laos had done.  

“The government in Hanoi keeps up cordial relations with Beijing despite a legacy of territorial disputes including one like Manila’s – competing claims to the South China Sea. To avoid overdependence on China, Vietnamese leaders have pressed for close relations with Japan and the United States, a wartime rival of the 1970s that lifted a ban this year on selling it lethal weapons,” Forbes said. 

Another neighbor, Indonesia, pursued a “free and active” foreign policy with China and the United States, University of Sydney scholars said in a November 2015 paper. 

Like the Philippines, Indonesia with its own South China Sea claims is wary of Beijing but needs it economically. The United States offers cover if needed. 

Duterte is trying to balance his country’s tilt toward U.S. aid, which conjures up the notion of neocolonialism for some Filipinos. 

U.S. criticism of suspected extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s drug eradication effort gives the president further impetus to repel American influence, Forbes added.

“He believes that establishing stronger ties with China and Russia will give him greater freedom to ignore U.S. demands regarding defense priorities,” says Carl Baker, director of programs with the U.S. think tank CSIS Pacific Forum. 

Sino-Philippine relations hit rock bottom after the government led by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over their territorial dispute. 


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Thursday, 13 December 2018
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