Commentary Uncategorized

The secret travel manifest to Davos

Sergio Osmeña Jr., then the mayor of Cebu, persuaded journalist Nestor Mata  to spend the night in the city. “Stay behind, little one,” Serging said. “No, I am returning to cover the president,” replied the newspaperman who was covering the trip of President Ramon Magsaysay for the Philippine Herald.

Everyone on that plane trip perished in the crash of March 17, 1957, all except Mata. When he came to after losing consciousness, he saw that parts of the plane around him were still burning. “After that, I began shouting, ‘Mr. President! Mr. President! Mr. President!” No answer came.

When he was rescued at daylight and brought to Cebu city’s Southern Island Hospital, he dictated to the nurse his press dispatch and began, “President Magsaysay is dead.”

That brief shining moment was a fine example of how presidential transparency empowers public information. Magsaysay traveled with media people. As such, media knew who else were on board the presidential plane.

President Fidel V. Ramos repeated the same in his state visits to foreign countries. Among the media people who traveled with him to cover his trips were Ellen Tordesillas, today the president of Vera Files, and the slain Percy Lapid who was with the National Press Club.

In other countries, a head of state’s plane manifest during official travels is a matter of strict public availability. It simply is information given to media because these travels are paid for by taxpayers’ money. In the US for example, the Secretary of State, because of the diplomatic nature of the job, is given his own state aircraft. Public disclosure is the norm on who travels with the secretary, including members of the press who are given seats.

The US government even has protocols on when spousal travel on official trips are allowed. There are restrictions to follow.

It is and should be par for the course for us to question the presence of Dawn Zulueta in the presidential trip last week to Davos, Switzerland. Of course the public had no idea she was part of the entourage until she posted a photo of herself shopping in a Bally boutique in Zurich. Was she using the per diem of her husband Anton Floirendo Lagdameo, the Special Assistant to the President, who was part of the entourage? A per diem (daily allowance) is standard in government trips. Who else went shopping?

Netizens questioning her presence have every right to do so. Per diem or not, it IS their money that paid for her seat in that chartered Philippine Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft. How much did that chartered flight cost to the poor Filipino taxpayers? PAL’s travel advisory of January 2023 does not list Zurich as one of its destinations. Chartering a flight is expensive. What about hotel rooms no longer on discount because they were booked late? Until now, there is no report on the expenses that should come from Malacañang.

That means we also paid for the travel of presidential sons Simon and Vincent Marcos. That is pure and frivolous gallivanting. Already, five Marcos family members were there: the President, the First Lady, the Speaker of the House and his wife, and the other presidential son Sandro. It is simply abuse of power. Simon was seen sitting with the Philippine panel in one Davos dialogue. What was his function, a private citizen, in that dialogue?

Economist Winnie Monsod mentions that the number of 70 in the Davos entourage came from Vera Files. I first mentioned that number based on information from those in Bern, Switzerland who had knowledge of the number of rooms booked in Zurich. There was an air of exasperation finding hotel bookings for that huge number of people because by that time most accommodations in Davos and in nearby Zurich were taken. It was not speculation.

A “delegation list” was leaked listing eighteen people: aside from the five Marcos-Romualdezes in government, there were Macapagal Arroyo of the House of Representatives, Diokno of Finance, Pascual of Trade and Industry, Bautista of Transportation, Balisacan of NEDA, Ople of Migrant Workers, Garafil of Presidential Communications, Lagdameo who is already mentioned, Cruz of Presidential Protocol, Mark Villar of the Senate, Sorreta USEC of Foreign Affairs, Abenoja USEC of Finance, Caunan USEC of Migrant Workers.

It is important to go over this list and then to ask: how many were undeclared on the delegation list? Paul Soriano was said to be in Davos. Dawn Zulueta was certainly not on the list, as were the two presidential sons. How many cabinet secretaries brought members of their staff? How many staff came from the Presidential Management Office? And like Lagdameo, how many brought their spouses? That is not counting yet the bodyguards from the Presidential Security Group. Even the rumors of Irene Marcos Araneta joining the trip was neither confirmed nor denied by Malacañang. A commercially configured Boeing 777 seats from 312 to 388 passengers.

What about media?

Only Apollo Quiboloy’s SMNI News covered live the Meet and Greet with Filipino OFWs held in Zurich. Was the SMNI staff part of the PAL B777 flight? How many were they and who paid for their hotel rooms? Even that is not clarified by SMNI itself. If it is a true media organization and not the propagandist it is largely perceived to be, it must tell the truth.

Ellen told me that during Ramos time, members of media who travelled with the president paid their way- airfare and hotel accommodation. The cost of the aircraft charter was divided among all the passengers with the businessmen being charged higher than the media.

In the president’s full interview with broadcast journalists three days ago, Rico Hizon of CNN Philippines asked a pointed question: The Filipino people really want to know from your eight overseas trips in the last seven months – how much have you spent per trip, and the number of people in your official and unofficial entourage list – para lang klaro po sa ating mamamayang Pilipino?

This was the president’s long-winding but very indirect answer: “You have to look at it as ROI (return on investment) . . . the cabinet ministers had their staff . . . the rest are security . . . the others come from the private sector, but they don’t fly with me . . . accountability is not an issue the private businesses bring up . . . they bring up the ease of doing business, cost of energy, problems of legislative guarantees . . . accountability and transparency is not an issue.”

When even a simple travel manifest is made a state secret, speculations rule the better part of us. That was how it was under the Marcos dictatorship’s martial law regime when it abdicated transparency and accountability.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.