By Charlie V. Manalo
Early this week, a respected television network uploaded on its website a story generated from a video press conference hosted by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo with Elizabeth Derr of Simularity Corp. as a resource person, regarding allegations of a Chinese vessel dumping human feces near an island in the South China Sea, which is being claimed by many countries including the Philippines.
The story was accompanied by a photo showing an unnamed ship which appears to be really dumping human waste.
However, just hours after posting, there were claims that the photo of the unnamed ship was actually taken years ago thousands of miles from the South China Sea, somewhere in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to show the extent of the damage to coral reefs by the dredging conducted by Australia.
Simularity was quick to wash its hands of the booboo saying it captioned the photo as an unnamed ship, putting the blame on the television network, which reacted by pulling down the controversial photo.
Even the satellite photos which Simularity attached with story were unconvincing and were not validated. Unfortunately, another media outlet still uploaded the photo later in the day when its authenticity had been challenged.
For its part, Simularity urged the government to validate its findings, even as lawmakers called for a congressional investigation into the reports.
What I find weird is the failure of these giant media organizations to check on the facts themselves? Why do they have to rely solely on the statement of the one hosting the press conference and the materials he or she is distributing?
First of all, have they checked on the background of Simularity?
According to Rigoberto Tiglao, in his column in the Manila Times the other day, Simularity Corp., although based in Florida in USA, was funded by Shatter Tech Venture Holdings, a firm based in Makati, owned by the family of former Noynoy Aquino’s Transportation and Communication Secretary, Joseph Abaya.
Yes, the same person whom Aquino vowed to run over a train should the LRT project from Cavite not be finished by 2015.
Of Simularity’s three directors, one is Joseph’s brother, Peter Anthony, who was former general manager of the National Reclamation Authority during Aquino’s time. The other two are Elizabeth Derr and her husband Raymond.
According to Tiglao, the Abaya’s shelled out $1 million to fund Simularity.
Now, isn’t the background regarding the people behind Simularity, and in fact, the conference’s host, too obvious to be biased that they, and the news they are peddling, merit validation? That the said story needs validating and that since the story probably concerns diplomatic issues, official government position on the matter should have been sought?
But no, they didn’t bother with that. Probably because they were too excited with the story, or that they have their own political biases.
As journalists, we have to admit we all have our own biases, and that includes politics. But that was supposed to be a straight news presentation and facts should have been validated.
Tiglao furthers this is not the first time Simularity, which incidentally, had only been incorporated last year, had presented fake news regarding China.
Last May, Tiglao said, Simularity “posted scores of photos of what it reported as showing over 200 Chinese ships in the Union Banks area, titled as ‘Chinese fishing vessels in Philippine EEZ,’ even as the area is claimed by China and Vietnam as their own sovereign territories.”
In that post, Simularity didn’t mention at all that Union Banks also is mostly controlled by Vietnam.
However, Tiglao said that as early as April 23, he had already proven in his article, the “report of Chinese maritime militia was a hoax, that the vessels were simply Chinese fishing fleets from its coasts seeking refuge from a storm in the boomerang-shaped atoll.”
Tiglao, citing sources, say Simularity had been contracted by the US State Department to set-up a South China Sea Rapid Alert Forum, a platform for manufacturing anti-China propaganda using its interpretation of satellite images.
While this allegation is yet to be proven, it only validates how we are at the mercy of how Simularity interprets a satellite photo. And these two giant media networks happened to accept hook, line and sinker Simularity’s interpretation of a satellite photo which it claimed shows Chinese ships dumping human waste into the South China Sea.
I just don’t understand how these respected media outlets missed that. The manner by which they gathered and presented that particular news item defies generally accepted journalistic norms.
Even after being exposed that the photo it had distributed to media to substantiate its claim if Chinese vessels’ dumping of human wastes into the contested areas in South China Sea, Simularity Corp. continues to insist it did not lie about the picture because it never claimed that it was of the Spratlys or that its research was based on this single image.
Really, Simularity? Then what’s the intention of distributing the said photo to the media in a press briefing wherein you claimed to have uncovered the dumping of human feces by Chinese vessels of the Spratly Islands?
Simularity also provided the media with satellite images which it interpreted as images of hundreds of ships anchored at the Spratlys allegedly dumping raw sewage into the reefs, adding that that the damage in the past five years is even visible from space and directly affects the fish stocks of the entire South China Sea.
But as not everyone is as techie as the people of Simularity, isn’t there a need for a third party to validate the firm’s interpretation of the images, which when viewed by a layman like me, is not inconclusive, but even unconvincing? (Thus maybe they need the reason to accompany them with a fake photo.)
The Florida-based company, which is said to have been funded by former officials of the Aquino government, also claims they are not in any way, “biased against the Chinese” as they claim they do science-based research and report based on their findings.
“If any country is doing things they should not be doing, and we can see that from satellite imagery, they are fair game for our reporting,” Simularity avers.
But again, who is there to validate their interpretation of the satellite imagery? It would have been easier for us to believe in Simularity’s claim if the source of their funding did not surface. And if it was the first time they had hit China based on an alleged fraudulent claim.
With Simularity’s failure to clarify these issues, the Chinese Embassy here in Manila issued a statement describing the company as harbinger of lies against China.
In its statement, the Chinese Embassy condemned Simularity’s act of fabricating facts, violating professional ethics, and maliciously spreading fake news against China.
“For a long time, anti-China forces like this company have spared no efforts to produce lies and hype up the South China Sea issue to discredit and demonize China, create hatred and anti-China sentiments in the Philippines. Their ultimate goal is to sow discord between China and the Philippines so as to serve their own political agenda.
These anti-China forces have formed a complete set of routines. Some foreign organizations issue a fabricated report, and then some irresponsible media follow up to spread fake news. Finally, some anti-China forces use fake news to accuse and defame China,” the statement read.
But even if it had scored early success in spreading the “fake news,” the Chinese Embassy stresses “that a lie told a thousand times is still a lie” that any rational person can see clearly through the tricks.
Now here’s the biggest challenge to Simularity. Our very own Department of National Defense has directed the Western Command which has jurisdiction over the West Philippine Sea to verify and investigate. And China bared its willingness to work with countries along the coast of the South China Sea, including the Philippines, to eliminate interference and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.
This could turn out to be the biggest demolition job that local media entities had taken part in.