POSTSCRIPT / June 27, 2000 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Why is Puno hiding Erap from the press?

ALTHOUGH it is into the bigtime, it seems the Abu Sayyaf is now willing to settle for the piece-by-piece retail release of its prized prisoners rather than wait to let go all its 21 hostages in one wholesale transaction.

Probably feeling the pinch of a sluggish cash flow, the Abu Sayyaf decided to retail out even just one hostage for the right price. The business managers of the kidnapping syndicate know the value of turnover.

Business must really be that bad in these parts to have the kidnapping for ransom trade going tingi, or retail.

It’s much like cigarettes being sold per stick and not by the pack, or such other informal economic indicators as the off-line (off the sampayan) sale of used clothes, the sidewalk sale of old shoes, and the importation of vehicles and appliances snatched from the dumps of the first world.

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THE release over the weekend by Abu Sayyaf of one of the hostages demonstrates the wisdom of working quietly on a sensitive project without the distraction of media.

At the risk of being misunderstood as advocating censorship, Postscript has been suggesting the imposition of a partial or selective news blackout on the hostage situation in the Basilan-Sulu area to give negotiators a chance to work out something.

Particularly galling are foreign correspondents who have descended on the scene like locusts. Many a delicate mission had been jeopardized by the intrusion of these wayward parachute journalists.

It should be obvious by now how the kidnappers’ playing to the press, or their bargaining through the mass media, had unnecessarily prolonged the process of springing the hostages.

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BUT that’s the press problem in the South. Right here in the capital, there is an insidious form of government control that the media themselves seem to be learning to tolerate.

We are referring to the evasion by President Estrada of close media scrutiny by the expedience of letting his propagandists do the talking for him. The wonder is that a timid press is allowing the President to get away with it.

Upon the appointment of Press Secretary Ricardo Puno, the President phased out his regular broadcast programs and stopped ambush interviews without scheduling a regular full-blown press conference.

As a result, the public is denied its rightful opportunity in a democracy to scrutinize more closely the actions and pronouncements of the President. This is bad.

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DESPITE his being a broadcast journalist, Puno goes down in the record books as the official who finally took away from radio and television their advantage of having Erap Estrada virtually to themselves.

Before Puno hid the President from all media, Erap Estrada was on radio practically every day, making headlines with his startling revelations and quotable responses to comments and reports in media.

Talking to the vast radio audience instead of the small crowd of newspaper readers was a clever ploy of a President indirectly hitting back at an elitist press that refuses to accept him as a leader with moral and intellectual ascendancy.

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THE routine used to be for Erap to talk to friendly radio anchors in the morning. Newspaper reporters denied access to the President were reduced to taking notes and massaging the radio interview into a passable news item for their papers the next morning.

For months, print media were running around in circles looking for a way out of the problem of having to cover a President who disdains them and makes a big show of playing favorites.

Then came along Puno. Among his first moves was to break this near monopoly of his erstwhile colleagues in the broadcast media. Suddenly, radio and TV journalists were similarly situated — denied regular access to the President.

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THE underlying principle here is that one made popular by then Sen. Gene Magsaysay, who would tremble at the thought of being grilled in a press interview or delivering a speech on the floor of a Senate populated by intellectual and political giants.

“No talk, no mistake” made its debut in his time as an escape for officials who felt inadequate and avoided the press like the plague.

As if that were not bad enough, there also appeared in those interesting times this weapon of self-defense for nervous officials when cornered by media: “No comment… and don’t quote me!”

We should pry Erap wide open and force him to face the people through frequent dialogues with the press. We have the right to check the merchandize.

* * *

AS expected, here’s bad news for Filipino construction mogul F.F. Cruz and other contractors who think that submitting the lowest peso bid for a government project is enough to clinch the deal.

The Philippine Ports Authority decided last Friday to award the contract for the upgrading of the Batangas Port, earlier estimated to cost P4.8 billion, to a foreign partnership that bid P2.975 billion — which is P90 million more than the P2.885-billion bid of Cruz’s group.

In a special meeting Friday, the PPA board backed the decision of its Prequalification Bids and Award Committee to give the civil-marine works contract not to the lowest bidder but to what it called the “lowest complying bidder.”

* * *

THE board authorized PPA General Manager Juan O. Peña to forward the results of the public bidding held Jan. 12, 2000, to the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) that is funding the project with a loan.

The winning bid was submitted by the joint venture of Hanjin Engineering & Construction Corp. (Korean) and Konoike Construction Co. Ltd. (Japanese). In bidding for the project, F.F. Cruz also teamed up with another Japanese firm, Shimizu Corp. There were other serious bidders

As it forced the issue, the PPA board chaired by DOTC Undersecretary Willie Evangelista commended the decision of the bidding committee headed by Asst. General Manager Edilberto C. Catalan.

* * *

THE board said that after hearing explanations last Tuesday of Shimizu-F.F. Cruz officials clarifying the “minor errors” in their bid proposal, it discovered that:

  1. The exchange rate submitted by Shimizu-F.F. Cruz was erroneous and if strictly followed would result in a very low bid price of only P1.07 billion. The board said it was impossible for any contractor to complete the project at that price.
  2. While the project called for a 1,080-day construction period, the network diagram (PERT/CPM) of Shimizu-F.F. Cruz showed 1,095 days and its summarized bar chart showed 1,095 days and the detailed bar chart 1,082 days.
  3. The late introduction of FilSystems Inc. as a participating partner of Shimizu-F.F. Cruz deprived the bidding committee a chance to evaluate its contracting capacity. FilSystems was brought in only in the bidding proper and not during the earlier prequalifying stage.

* * *

FELIPE Cruz Sr., the patriarch of the F.F. Cruz and the FilSystems firms, said these points brought out by PPA were minor, reparable deviations that did not erase the fact that the government would save some P90 million by awarding the project to the lowest bidder.

Cruz insisted that his group submitted bid documents clearly indicating that it was set to work on the project for 1,080 days. He said the entry indicating 1,095 days (three calendar years, or 3 x 365 days) in some of the forms was a mere clerical error that did not diminish the substance of the compliance of their bid.

He said that although FilSystems (which has interlocking directorships with F.F. Cruz) was listed in one of the forms as a minor participating partner for building works, it was still the original Shimizu-F.F. Cruz combine that was legally bidding for and guaranteeing the project.

He said a fair appreciation of the facts would show that the lowest bid was still the most advantageous to the government despite some minor clerical errors.

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POSTSCRIPT: We apologize for the occasional appearance in our text of strange symbols and characters in place of some letters. One example is the “is not equal to” sign (equals sign with a slash) appearing where it is neither needed nor intended. Last time, the accented e (é) was replaced by an underscored blank in the word chargé. We hope readers do not get the feeling we’re making fun of them. For the information of those who might think that our software is playing tricks on us, we use Microsoft Word 2000 for our word processing.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 27, 2000)

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