Let’s begin with this opener of Rappler’s report in Rappler.com on Sept. 23, 2020: “President Duterte dropped a bombshell by raising, in an unprecedented move, the Philippines legal victory against China in a UN forum. ‘The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon,’ he declared.”

You, the reader, how would you take this declaration by the President?

Two things. First, that President Duterte did make a categorical declaration that the 2016 ruling of the so-called Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague on the Philippines’ arbitral case against China had been decided in the Philippines’ favor. Second, that the President was taking a warlike stance against China.

 On both scores, the Rappler report is wrong.

I’ve repeatedly gone over Rappler’s own report of the full text of President Duterte’s speech at the virtual United Nation’s 75th General Assembly (75th UNGA), viewed over and over again as well the video of that speech, but found not a sentence, or even just a phrase, that depicted the President claiming the Philippines won over China in that arbitral case.

There, too, was nary a statement by the President that he was standing up against China at long last, which would be the case if you place him in this context of the Rappler report: “President Duterte dropped a bombshell by raising, in an unprecedented move, the Philippines legal victory against China in a UN forum.”

To be sure, the President never said anything about a “Philippines legal victory against China,” as the Rappler slant would like us to believe.

The exact words the President said are these: “We must remain mindful of our obligations and commitment to the Charter of the United Nations and as amplified by the 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes. The Philippines affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with Unclos and the 2016 Arbitral Award. The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it. We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for — the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition. This — as it should — is the majesty of the law.”

As I explained in my column Reading the President’s  UNGA Speech (The Manila Times, Sept. 27, 2020), the President is a lawyer, has been a long-time prosecutor, and he should know whereof he speaks, that what is not stated in the law is not the law. What he did not say in his speech, he never said in that speech.

But read this opener of the Rappler report on the President’s UNGA speech: “President Duterte dropped a bombshell by raising, in an unprecedented move, the Philippines legal victory against China.”

Does it not say President Duterte is raising the Philippines’ legal victory against China?
The bombast with which Rappler opened its report on the President’s UNGA speech definitely pictured somebody assertive of that perceived Philippine victory in the PCA arbitral proceedings and combative in pushing that victory against China.

But no, not only is this totally untrue. It also grossly distorts what the President actually said. He said, “The arbitral ruling has become part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”

In other words, let nobody change what the PCA ruling is, that it has not ruled at all on the issue of Philippine sovereignty over disputed areas in the South China Sea and that the fact that China from the very beginning has not recognized the PCA arbitral proceedings and in fact made categorical manifestations that it would not accept its judgment makes it imperative that the final verdict, though finding the nine-dash-line illegal, would be non-binding on China.

When President Duterte declares, “We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” does he not actually have in mind the incessant attempts of the tandem of former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and their ilk to twist the PCA ruling by interpreting it for what it is not?

President Duterte’s allusion to international law and such legal terminologies as “beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon” are pure legalese and give room for an infinite number of interpretations.

Evidently, Rappler saw a brilliant opportunity of using the President against himself in achieving its intended objective of damning him. By slanting its report on the President’s UNGA speech the way it did, Rappler had seized on that opportunity to the hilt.

That President Duterte in his UNGA speech was not an inch anti-China as Rappler tried to picture him to be may be gleaned from the fact that on a number of concerns, his views harmonized with those of President Xi Jinping.

For instance, while US President Trump rejected the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, both Presidents Xi and Duterte vowed to support the accord’s advocacies. President Trump criticized the World Health Organization; Presidents Xi and Duterte were one in lauding WHO’s efforts in the fight against the coronavirus. Countered with Trump’s America First policy and world unilateralism was a determined call by Presidents Xi and Duterte for a multipolar world, a world community of shared future — the earth, their one and only motherland.

How could President Duterte be pictured as at odds with China whose leader’s vision for the world he shares?

For its inherent malice, the Rappler opener cited above actually amounts to putting words into the President’s mouth. That’s never to be done.

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