Aquino’s death: The haunting

It constituted media’s neglect to serve the people’s right to know

Towards the last days of his presidency, President Aquino in his office: He lifted seven million Filipinos out of poverty and left more than a trillion pesos in the treasury. (Official presidential photo)

The death, last week, of Benigno Aquino III caught everyone unawares not because it came suddenly but because the two years of illness leading to it—diabetes, a bad heart, and terminally diseased kidneys, not to mention their complications—had gone unrevealed. The default had in fact persisted through his five years in retirement from the presidency.

For that, the news media bear no small responsibility, and they cannot blame Aquino’s adamant reclusiveness, as they tend to do; they were bound by professional duty to watch and report. To not bother at all was not considerate, but merely convenient, in obtrusive disregard of a simple, sensible, and unobtrusive option—to keep tabs from a distance. It constituted neglect to serve the people’s right to know, as it concerned in particular those who feel orphaned by Aquino and, themselves feeling guilty for having shortchanged him, wish now to atone for it, by saying their own sorrys and thank-yous, at least.

But never mind praise and respect and gratitude as a matter of propriety. Being no less than the standard for public service and leadership, Aquino definitely deserves post-term and post-mortem notice. Nay, he deserves historical enshrinement.

If it’s true, as they say, that the ultimate toll on one’s health is traceable to the accumulation of pressures on one’s life, the correlation is well defined in Aquino’s case. An only son and just 13, he had to take up paternal duties delegated to him by his father, Benigno Jr., a prisoner of Ferdinand Marcos’s martial-law regime. After the father’s assassination, 10 years later, in 1983, the surrogacy became a complete, lifelong duty, and one of its demands was for the son to defend his mother and her democratic presidency against a coup after it had succeeded the Marcos dictatorship upon its dismantling through a bloodless people-power revolt, in 1986. President Cory and her government survived, but her son paid a personal price, taking a plotter’s bullet. Fragments of it would remain lodged in his neck, causing sufferance he would have to endure for the rest of his life as a safer option than further surgery.

His mother’s retirement, unlike his own, was hardly quiet. Calls to national matriarchal duty summoned her for inspiration and leadership. One of the more significant of these came from civil society when it constantly called out Gloria Arroyo for a corrupt and high-handed presidency and, also and in the first place, for rigging her own vote.

Cory died of cancer, herself a case that fits the theory that terminal afflictions result from living under pressure. As family fate would have it, her death came around the beginning of the electoral season, as the nation hit another crossroads in its generally rough life: the prospect of a friendly successor to Arroyo loomed. Cory’s son, a last-minute opposition draftee, frustrated it.

PNoy (as he was called in that familiar tone of address the family inspired—Ninoy, Cory) immediately established a cleanup presidency. Arroyo and comrades were taken to court for plunder and detained while on trial and Arroyo’s appointed Chief Justice was impeached, found guilty, and removed. At the same time, PNoy served ringing notice that public office exists for service and reserves no privilege whatever for the officeholder.

PNoy racked achievement after achievement to a record that could not be remotely matched

PNoy racked achievement after achievement to a record that could not be remotely matched. He grew the economy steadily and at its highest rate and lifted seven million Filipinos out of poverty. Apart from an economy not only stronger than ever but showing even further promise, he left, for a head start, more than a trillion pesos in the treasury and civil works prefunded and laid out, waiting only to be launched. He got an arbitral court to dismiss China’s fraudulent claim on our western sea, a wellspring of marine species and minerals. He made people feel ever safer against crime, as they themselves acknowledged in a poll when polls were still credible because, unlike now, they were done in an atmosphere of freedom.

He earned the respect of foreign leaders such as no other Philippine president has done—except his mother, whose own singular achievement was the rebuilding of the institutions of democracy that Marcos had brought to absolute ruin.

If the news media were looking for ugly truths, there were not enough to suit their wont. On balance as a result, PNoy got himself either a bad press or an indifferent one. What makes the dereliction aggravating is that it helped an errant presidency succeed on an uninformed vote and consequently squander, through corruption and incompetence, the gains made by its predecessor.

And what is ironic is that, all these five years after PNoy, the media have had more and uglier ugly truths than imaginable stare them in the face, but are too afraid to have anything to do with them, not even look at them.

Anyway, dying to an Aquino is by no means a final act; it is only the beginning of retributive haunting.

About author


He is a veteran journalist who has edited broadsheets and a trailblazing tabloid, has written books including the biography of democracy icon Chino Roces, and now writes a column for Rappler.

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