POSTSCRIPT / September 12, 2004 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Palace top propagandists crowd around PR button

WHO DOES WHAT?: The propaganda machine of Malacanang seems to need some fine-tuning and a clearer delineation of functions of the all-star cast crowding around the Press Release button.

It is a good thing I have learned to play selectively deaf now and then as part of my defense mechanism. Otherwise, the redundant statements from the Palace would have downed me with a king-size migraine by now.

For one, the job descriptions of top honcho Communications Director Silvestre Afable and Presidential Spokesman and Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye must be made crystal clear — for their sake, that of their boss the President and that of the publics they serve.

Sometimes, both Afable and Bunye issue overlapping statements on the same subject on the same day. An example of such an overworked topic is the on-and-off peace negotiation between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government.

While their statements do not conflict (of course they are both for peace and unity), the duo looks funny mouthing substantially the same thing on the same subject on the same day in separate statements.

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HIERARCHY RULES: Under Executive Order 348 that brought forth the unwieldy information structure at the Palace, Afable is on top of Bunye, but both of them are of Cabinet rank (and presumably have equal speaking rights?).

But as I understand hierarchy, when Afable talks on a subject, everybody under him, including Bunye, must keep quiet.

Unless pre-authorized to engage in embroidery, the underlings merely repeat or refer to Afable’s prior statement and attribute everything to him and not to themselves.

It seems, however, that Bunye needs all the exposure he can get to project himself this early for the 2007 senatorial fight. That might explain the daily “Bunye says…” emanating from his office regardless of what President Arroyo and Afable had already said on the same subject.

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AN ECHOING BOARD: I am forced to ask: Is it proper for Bunye to issue his own separate statement (meaning a press release quoting his own opinion) when the President already has her own formal statement on the same subject released by Bunye himself?

Is it not superfluous for the presidential spokesman to issue his separate statements on matters on which the President also has a statement?

As I understand these things, a presidential spokesman does not have, or is not allowed to have, an opinion of his own. When he talks officially, he would be like that dog listening to the voice of his master.

The presidential spokesman is simply the echoing board of the President. He has no voice of his own.

Btw, how does it feel carrying such a kilometric title as “Presidential Spokesman and Press Secretary”? Why not simply “Press Secretary” after the first and last announcement to all and sundry that the Press Secretary is also the presidential spokesman?

If you ask me, these two jobs of the spokesman and the Press Secretary should be split and held by two different individuals.

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DIGRESSING: But I am not complaining of the redundancy. I like it when everybody tries grabbing the mike to give us a piece of his mind.

If I may digress… The mention of “mike” reminds me of the President’s husband who has been very visible in her latest trips and getting bolder in his public appearances.

How come Malacanang press releases sometimes refer to him as “First Gentleman Atty. Jose Miguel Arroyo”? Why do they have to mention his pre-Malacanang occupation in his current formal title? Does “Atty.” add to his stature?

If this catches on, we might soon start seeing titles like “Senator Actor …, ” “Vice President Newsreader…,” “Congressman Smuggler…,” “Governor Reporter…,” and the like.

Another point I have long wanted to raise: Will the Palace please make a formal announcement as to how the President should be called, or want to be referred to, in succeeding mentions in a news report? Should it be “President Macapagal-Arroyo” or “President Arroyo,” or “President Macapagal”?

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DOCUS BEST EVIDENCE: As expected, interim Director Ronald Velasco of the National Printing Office denied that his office has been buying supplies, some of them without public bidding, at a scandalous overprice.

But he does not have to admit it. The purchase papers on materials procured through the notorious ploy of resorting to “emergency purchase” show the overpricing as explained in our earlier POSTSCRIPT .

Velasco’s best recourse is to get a good lawyer, because we understand the Palace is bent on demonstrating that it is serious in its anti-graft campaign. He might also need a magician to show, if he could, that our document copies confirming overpricing were fake or falsified.

Some members of Congress might also want to look into this case of huge volumes of printing materials, such as paper, being routinely bought by the NPO at prices that are sometimes more than 170 percent higher than the prevailing market price.

Already, An Waray party list Rep. Florencio Noel has vowed to bring to the nation’s consciousness the enormity of the graft and corruption in the NPO. At the same time, he pressed the Ombudsman and the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) to ferret out the crooks.

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FAKE EMERGENCIES: By making it appear that the purchases were “emergency” transactions, the NPO went ahead, dispensed with the required bidding and just negotiated the purchase with favored suppliers. That practice is an invitation to gross overpricing.

Velasco is given fair warning that right in his office there are employees fed up with the money-making rackets of their superiors. They have spirited out incriminating documents.

My NPO sources stand by their facts and figures, commenting that the corruption was not confined to the overpricing of supplies but also include kickbacks and under-the-table transactions from truck operators and unscrupulous printers and suppliers.

Printing is common enough a business, so a lot of people know all the details, including pricing. We were not surprised to receive letters reporting to us that the prices at which the NPO bought materials were way above the correct prices.

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EXTRA FUNDS: It is misleading to say, as Velasco has said, that the anomalies at the NPO could not have been of such a staggering amount because the NPO budget for 2004 is only P126 million.

What is not being mentioned is that the total amount of procurement and printing transactions that the NPO undertakes each year is actually several times the NPO budget since that office handles the multi-million-peso printing needs of various government agencies.

Besides, there are other funds to which NPO officials have access. These include special account funds, trust funds, and the like.

Velasco cannot hide behind the lame excuse that the transactions passed through the NPO bids and awards committee. What this simply means is that members of the committee will themselves have to do some explaining.

Anyway, this is far from a closed case. If the Arroyo administration is sincere in its avowed anti-graft campaign, it can start in its own backyard, the NPO. That office under Velasco, btw, is attached to the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), headed by Velasco’s own brother Director Rene Velasco.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 12, 2004)

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