Tuesday, August 31, 2010


A lot of folk hyperventilated when it seemed that the Department of Interior portfolio would go to Vice President Jejomar Binay. Many gulped at the thought of Binay at the DILG – a surefire way of cementing an already strong nationwide network, which made him the dark horse of the last elections.

We screamed for Naga City’s Jesse Robredo, he of the lily-white reputation, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the rep for transparency and integrity. We chafed at how it was taking President Benigno Aquino III too long to appoint official. We heard talks of disagreements in policy, of tense meetings. But in the end, he did appoint dear Jesse.

Of course, it wasn’t quite as ideal as it sounded. Robredo may be DILG chief but Mr. Aquino’s election campaign official bagman, Rico Puno (not the singer) was given powers over the Philippine National Police (PNP), headed by Director-General Jesus Versoza.

I don’t know why Rebredo’s patience has snapped. But in the past two days, he has told select journalists that he shouldn’t be blamed for the August 23 hostage-taking fiasco because the PNP answers to Puno. Today, he demanded a probe into why Versoza flew to Cagayan de Oro in the afternoon of Aug. 23.

Now, why the DILG secretary needs to ask for a probe is curious in itself and once more a dead giveaway of the intramurals between the two main Aquino support camps.

There will always be feuds over the spoils of political victory. But what is particularly galling over the Aquino brawls is that, they have often made their principal look not only wrong-footed but also bereft of leadership.

Details of those fights have to wait for another post. This one will deal with a stunning development on the transparency and accountability front. It’s one story that doesn’t need independent verification – because it comes from the DILG.

Before I give you the press release, just this question: So does this mean that President Aquino and the DILG Secretary don’t care about past allegations of wrong-doing, don’t care that it may have cost taxpayers a couple of billion pesos?

Here goes (all itals mine):



In a move to strengthen the foundation of responsible and accountable governance, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) today formally opened its doors for civil society participation in governance with the signing of a memorandum of agreement with two multi-sectoral networks of national government organizations (NGOs) that seeks to institutionalize partnerships with NGOs at the local level.

DILG Secretary Jesse M Robredo, Executive Director Vicente Lazatin of Transparency and Accountability Network Inc. (TAN), and Anna Marie Karnos representing Executive Director Sixto Donato of Caucus of Development Non-Governmental Organization Networks (CODE) signed the memorandum of agreement today at the DILG Central Office in Quezon City.

Robredo said that the MOA will effectively mobilize and engage CSOs as partners of the DILG and local government units to promote accountability, transparency, inclusivity and performance in local administration and development as well as in the internal operations of the Department.

“We believe in the huge potentials and advantages of collaborative partnerships with NGOs, CSOs, and the private sector in undertaking development projects and in improving government systems and procedures,” said Robredo, during the MOA signing.

Under the MOA, the DILG Secretary said the Department shall hold a monthly Local Governance Forum that will address issues that continue to challenge the norms of performance and accountability.

The DILG is also tasked to establish a communication link with TAN, CODE-NGO and other partners to ensure complementarity of decisions of actions in furtherance of the objectives of the partnerships at the national and local levels. It shall also enjoin DILG regional offices to support the aims of the DILG-CSO and DILG-LGU-CSO partnerships.

On the other hand, TAN and CODE-NGO shall launch, in collaboration with the DILG, a Social Accountability Initiative to promote civic consciousness and action to provide a balancing perspective on the performance and development conditions of a locality.

They shall also take the lead in convening the Regional Partnership workshops, and regularize the assessment of DILG-CSO and DILG-LGU-CSO partnerships and link information to concerned central and local government authorities for decision and action.

Moreover, they shall assist the Department in crafting new, or enhancing existing, programs or policies to promote transparency, accountability and performance, as well as in conducting performance tracking and development outcome-audit.

TAN is a coalition of multi-sectoral organizations which seeks to contribute significantly to the reduction of corruption in the country, while CODE-NGO is a national civil society organization. ###

WHAT, NO MENTION OF HOW CODE-NGO RAKED IN A 'COMMISSION' OF P1-BILLION FOR PACKAGING A FOREIGN LOAN? Aaaaah, but then, as the old guard use to say, what are they in power for

Friday, August 27, 2010


Anger and Concern over President Benigno Aquino's words



菲駐港副領事Ms. Lorena Joy P. Banagodos 親自接信,她表示,對挾持人質事件有港人死亡感到悲傷,並向港人致意慰問。她亦向本會承諾,稍後會將有關聲明轉交至菲律賓總統府。


Dear President Aquino,

The Hong Kong Journalists Association expresses its deepest condolences to the families of those who died in Manila’s hostage tragedy. We also want to express our appreciation and respect to those who acted bravely and astutely during the long standoff, thus allowing some of the hostages to survive. We are, however, filled with anger and concern over the blame being heaped on the media for allegedly contributing to the tragedy.

The HKJA notes with concern that President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines made the media the scapegoat when he said: “Media coverage of his brother being taken into custody further agitated the hostage-taker…” Using this flimsy excuse, Mr. Aquino said he would consider imposing new restrictions on media coverage should a similar crisis occur.

We have no idea what further restrictions are under consideration but what we are sure of is that President Benigno Aquino’s words were uttered hastily and without careful consideration. Without a thorough investigation such conclusions cannot be taken seriously and the HKJA views the president’s hasty conclusions with grave misgivings.

The role of the media is to tell the world what is happening and what has happened. This is the essence of what the democratic world has come to know and to accept as freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The media’s presence is vital to the preservation of human rights of minorities in any conflict. As in the case of Manila’s killings, nobody can tell if the same tragedy would not have taken place without the presence of the media. What we can be sure of is that without the presence of the media no knowledge of this horrific tragedy would have been known to the outside world.

Moreover, the police force of the Philippines should have known that negotiations were going on between the gunman and his brother, and that this was being telecast. The act of arresting the brother would, clearly, irritate the gunman. Yet the police forcibly wrestled the brother down and handcuffed him, all directly in front of the media.

The police, clearly, had neither strategy nor the necessary know-how to deal with such a situation. With the development of the new media, it is unrealistic to ask the media not to broadcast live in a matter of huge public interest not only to the Filipinos themselves, but also to people in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Proper media arrangements, including a safe area for the media at the scene, in accordance with internationally accepted standards, are of paramount importance. None were forthcoming.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association calls on the Philippines government to refrain from using this incident to introduce harsh measures against the media in order to cover up their incompetence. We will closely monitor the incident and any further deterioration of press freedom in Philippines arising from this tragedy.

With Kind Regards,
Hong Kong Journalists Association

26th August 2010

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Media's job is to tell the story, but no story is worth even one life.

We will always cooperate with authorities in trying to resolve complex situations like the Aug 23 hostage crisis.

If the government had called for a news blackout, ABS-CBN would have supported it.

We are done with an initial assessment of our coverage and continue to review our policies.

We exercised self-restraint on Monday:
1. We refused to air the hostage taker's threats live about a 3 pm deadline to avoid fuelling public fear.
2. We refused to air the hostage taker's interview until after negotiations were finished.
3. We refused to be part of hostage negotiations.
4. All throughout the day and until the first shots were aired, we kept our cameras 400 meters away from the bus, giving us shaky video that viewers complained about. Our teams never crossed the police line.
5. Although we had access to members of the police reaction team, we held back interviews which could compromise their plans and/or location.
6. After the police tried to arrest the hostage taker's brother, our team physically stepped back to comply with police request.
7. After the assault began, we tried to limit our shots to avoid showing police movements. We stayed with extreme close-ups or wide shots.
8. We immediately complied when police asked us to turn off our lights explaining the grainy shots viewers complained about.
9. We avoided tampering with evidence at crime scene. Instead, we asked Soco to shoot the video instead of entering the bus ourselves.

This wasn't enough.

We acknowledge airing a report that detailed the position of the police during the assault.

During the arrest of Gregorio Mendoza, we considered pulling away from the coverage but a man was crying for help.

In other countries around the world, governments set the ground rules for situations like this. One network cannot unilaterally declare a news blackout. Press freedom issues take a back seat during situations like this - where the government already has the power to define the terms to media.

We are taking the public's views to heart. Monday's tragic events triggered intense soul-searching for us. Such is the irony of a profession that wields so much power but relies entirely on self-doubt to gain --- and keep --- its credibility.

We ask our broadcast colleagues to join us in an industry review. Let us unite and work together to put in place measures to collectively decide when we stop live coverage in the absence of government presence of mind.


Media's job is to tell the story, but no story is worth even one life.

We will always cooperate with authorities in trying to resolve complex situations like the Aug 23 hostage crisis.

If the government had called for a news blackout, ABS-CBN would have supported it.

We are done with an initial assessment of our coverage and continue to review our policies.

We exercised self-restraint on Monday:
1. We refused to air the hostage taker's threats live about a 3 pm deadline to avoid fuelling public fear.
2. We refused to air the hostage taker's interview until after negotiations were finished.
3. We refused to be part of hostage negotiations.
4. All throughout the day and until the first shots were aired, we kept our cameras 400 meters away from the bus, giving us shaky video that viewers complained about. Our teams never crossed the police line.
5. Although we had access to members of the police reaction team, we held back interviews which could compromise their plans and/or location.
6. After the police tried to arrest the hostage taker's brother, our team physically stepped back to comply with police request. As was seen on video, that space was quickly filled in by other journalists.
7. After the assault began, we tried to limit our shots to avoid showing police movements. We stayed with extreme close-ups or wide shots.
8. We immediately complied when police asked us to turn off our lights explaining the grainy shots viewers complained about.
9. We avoided tampering with evidence at crime scene. Instead, we asked Soco to shoot the video instead of entering the bus ourselves.

This wasn't enough.

We acknowledge airing a report that detailed the position of the police during the assault.

During the arrest of Gregorio Mendoza, we considered pulling away from the coverage but a man was crying for help.

In other countries around the world, governments set the ground rules for situations like this. One network cannot unilaterally declare a news blackout. Press freedom issues take a back seat during situations like this - where the government already has the power to define the terms to media.

We are taking the public's views to heart. Monday's tragic events triggered intense soul-searching for us. Such is the irony of a profession that wields so much power but relies entirely on self-doubt to gain --- and keep --- its credibility.

We ask our broadcast colleagues to join us in an industry review. Let us unite and work together to put in place measures to collectively decide when we stop live coverage in the absence of government presence of mind.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


National Union of Journalists of the Philippines
August 25, 2010

A call for self-examination

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) grieves for the loss of so many lives in the hostage-taking at the Quirino Grandstand on Monday.

We condole with families of all the victims of this tragedy and we join the calls for a thorough and swift investigation on why and how the bloodbath happened.

The Philippine government and the Philippine National Police have already acknowledged errors and shortcoming in responding to and addressing the incident. We believe that they were primarily responsible for supposedly controlling the situation, ending the crisis and ensuring the safety of the hostages.

But even as we grieve, we call on colleagues in the media to seriously and comprehensively examine how we covered the crisis and if our coverage in any way contributed to the tragic end of the hostage-taking.

It is media’s responsibility to cover events and report these as comprehensively and truthfully as possible.

But some colleagues clearly violated ethical standards and established procedures and guidelines in covering crisis situations including hostage-taking incidents.

Various media institutions and journalism scholars have laid down guidelines in covering crisis situations including hostage-taking. We urge news organizations to abide by these guidelines and to ensure that those it assigns to cover these crisis situations are adequately trained and informed.

We also encourage media owners, leaders and organizations to meet and agree on a set of protocols for the industry to guide us during similar situations.

The hostage-taking incident has once again highlighted the need for more trainings and education on our ranks to make sure that we do more good than harm in the performance of our work.

But even as we examine our actions and admit mistakes and shortcomings, we stand firm against abrogating our right to cover important events of public interest.

We oppose House Bill 2737 filed by Cebu Rep. Luis Quisumbing and similar measures aimed at imposing a media blackout during crisis situations. Legislated restrictions on media coverage are more dangerous and could pave the way for abuses and excesses by authorities in responding to crisis situations.


Nestor P. Burgos Jr.

*The blog owner is a member and former chair of the NUJP
4/L FSS Bldg. # 89 Sct. Castor corner
Sct. Tuason Street (near T. Morato Ave),
Bgry. Laging Handa,
Quezon City, Philippines
Tel.: (+632) 3767330
Email: nujphil@gmail.com
Web: www.nujp.org (under construction)
Are you a journalist under threat?
Report it to NUJP’s Threat Hotlines:
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“There can be no press freedom if journalists
exist in conditions of corruption, poverty or fear”


Media is not perfect. (You should hear journalists b_tch!) Our natural tendency is to go for the great shot, the great line, the ’scoop’ — and that is across all platforms. We spend lots of hours and lots of breath — and yeah, lots of tears — trying to come up with safeguards against the possibility of being desensitized of all other considerations. That’s an all-media reality.

It would be self-serving to cite all those foreign reports (bbc, cnn, hk papers) as proof that we, media, are the good guys and that the cops were the bad guys. In the first place, Monday’s event wasn’t a game of cops and robbers.

This was a long day with many groups of people — Hongkong residents and officials not the least — running around trying their darn best to make some sense of an unraveling horror. You do not need to be a blame seeker to understand what “authority” means or what “leadership” is (or to feel sad at the glaring absence of the latter).

The other night was my first time on the other end of a monitor. Without dismissing viewers’ concerns and criticism, and standing by an earlier blog, here’s a tidbit from the new kid on the block:

This is what I said that night as everyone went home, and said very humbly… Now I know just how hard folks in broadcast work and how complex the choices at hand — when a dozen screens are lit up with possibles and 30 people before you, around you and across the metropolis are all trying to get heard all at the same time.

Maybe I’m just a new fan, enjoying a brand new world (yes, that’s a cliche!) — but also not a blind fan. What I saw and heard was a hall of people (and another set of folks on the other side of the monitors) trying to do their darn best to do right and — yes, those in the newsroom and on the ground — to self regulate and adjust accordingly every second of that long, bitter day. There was no movement that didn’t cOme with a cautionary word, a word of warning, yells to shift or stop even as DO became DID.

But yes, we will always need (and will always be grateful) to have the public as our conscience.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


“Mulling over all reactions... I will say this: there is little talk (nor thought) of ratings when lives hang on the balance. And however flawed coverage may be -- and there will always be flaws -- journalists do care about the lives they cover. But like the authorities and the comfortable we are professionally bound to afflict, media will have to listen with grace to criticism.”

I’ve had one good friend pooh-pooh the above statement, written mid-morning after a mostly sleepless night (as most journalists hereabouts must have experienced). After a couple more hours of gazing at the ceiling and reviewing Internet clips of yesterday’s Quirino Grandstand tragedy (all stations) and what radio stations reported (all stations), I am standing by that statement.

At the Manila Pen, at the Bicutan siege, at other incidents, I evoked media’s duty to cover events as they unfold. I know that is not the core issue now being raised by critics of our profession. Last night and today, the angry reactions focused on a couple of things:

Live coverage of the hostage-taking incident;

• Erroneous or premature reports (of the number of dead, for example)

Pandering to dismissed cop Fernando Mendoza’s “grandstanding”;

• Letting SPO2 Gregorio Mendoza, brother of the hostage-taker, go primetime with his drama – and in the process provoking the dismissed cop into acts of violence; and

• Doing step-by-step accounts of the assault on Mendoza.

(This post does not aim to critique the cops’ performance or the national government’s response (or non-response) to the hostage crisis. Let’s leave that for another post.)

In its “Guidelines for Covering Hostage-Taking Crises, Prison Uprisings, Terrorist Actions,” Poynter.org states:

“Challenge any gut reaction to "go live" from the scene of a hostage-taking crisis, unless there are strong journalistic reasons for a live, on-the-scene report. Things can go wrong very quickly in a live report, endangering lives or damaging negotiations. Furthermore, ask if the value of a live, on-the-scene report is really justifiable compared to the harm that could occur.”

I have always had one simple rule of thumb. Journalists cover events. Newspaper, radio, television and Internet teams will always try to present an unfolding story from varied vantage points. When authorities tell us to desist from live coverage, we consider that (notice the caveat in the above cited rule).

When media does live coverage, then it must consider what to air and not to air. It is true that live coverage is dangerous: It is harder to do the usual gate-keeping work like double-checking facts and choosing one’s words, especially when reporters themselves are in the line of fire.

There are reasons that media go live and not everything has to do with ratings.

Yes, ratings are a given in television and radio, and hits for web-based media enterprises. The race can lead to sensationalized reporting and dog-eat-dog scenarios where the focus is on the competition and not on the story or its repercussions. But that should not blind us to other facets of our national reality.

There are reasons why desperate people in this country -- whether they are contemplating suicide, fleeing for their lives or holding people hostage -- run to media. These reasons have also a lot to do with the murders of journalists in this country. However problematic some journalists are; however shaky their ethics, in many areas of this nation they are sometimes the only people standing between powerful groups and individuals and the communities they seek to cow.

Quirino grandstand, of course, is not in the boondocks. It looms over Luneta, in the heart of Manila, the center of power in this archipelago. Manila is also where, not too long ago, a naked man flipped and flopped on cold tiles as his prick and balls were jerked here and there by another man we’d all been taught to respect as our protector.

Manila is where Mendoza was once accused of entrapping and extorting from a young man (though there are friends and colleagues who insist Mendoza was the good guy framed by rich and powerful malefactors). Manila is also where soldiers seeking redress are silenced by edict, by arrest or by other means. Manila, let us not forget, is also where men grabbed Jonas Burgos, who remains missing to this day. (Yes, we have failed to cover other victims and yes, sometimes it is because a story is not 'sexy'.)

I do not know if Gregorio was indeed an accessory to a crime (there is no acceptable excuse for hostage-taking). He wasn’t a gatecrasher. Rightly or wrongly, he was asked to help. He identified too well with the suspect; not surprising as they were brothers.

I do know this. If a man before me cries that he is being persecuted and on the verge of being disappeared (temporarily or permanently), I will not turn my back on him. I will not interfere when cops wrestle him into submission, but neither will I pretend to be blind.

Should there have been an instant decision to impose a news blackout so as not to provoke the hostage-taker?

The entire day’s coverage was live. Cops and officials agreed to interviews knowing the incident was being covered live. They ordered the arrest and grabbed Gregorio knowing coverage was live. No journalist or cop has noted any request – anywhere, any time, to anyone –that live coverage stop.

Having said that, I must stress the following points:

Media should try to resist talking to a hostage-taker (certainly, not interview him live). The hostage-taker may suddenly decide to transform an interview into a negotiation. And journalists have no business being negotiators. Period.

If we get an unsolicited call from a hostage-taker, we should just take down whatever is said but not get involved in any bargaining ploy;

Nor are we psychologists, so let’s not jeer at the hostage-taker; certainly not in his hearing;

We are not negotiators so we shouldn’t even debate on the pros or cons of a hostage-taker’s conditions. Nor should we listen to those who want that debate;

There should be no step-by-step accounts of assault operations. That is a different call from live reporting. Even when the authorities fail to request for such, journalists should try to keep it in mind. If reporters (who in the ‘heat of battle’ may not be able to pull back from the fray) start giving away information, superiors should find a way close the gates – or head off reporters to safer realms.

Of course, in an age where mobile phones can take sharp still and video images, when kids can afford to buy Flip cameras, one could argue that the rest of the world could put one over media. (Certainly, a friend of a hostage-taker could give him those sensitive images and in the crush – a teenager got hit in the crossfire! -- the effort would have been missed.)

These developments add pressure to media work. But the world is already a terribly complicated place, where roles of lawmen and lawbreakers merge in an unholy mess and the law itself acts like shifting sand. We journalists would serve this world better by trying to record these changes without getting trapped in the muck. We must thus learn better to sidestep the dangers.

It is hard keeping pace with a world where today is already on the verge of being passé. Especially when, at the same time, modern technology sometimes fails us: Audio can fail and desks and reporters, whether from the print, broadcast or digital media, could get cut off from each other. But we just have to try. And we are.

We cannot always agree with our audience. But we will always agree that they, too, share our best intentions – even when they call ours to question.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


There are times when words are superfluous.

A man writhing on the floor, limbs jerking, his torso twisting with every pull of a string; this classic of a Pavlovian experiment on pain hardly needs annotation. A group of uniformed men impassively watching this hardcore performance art; what words could possibly explain that obscenity?

Tears at the Commission on Human Rights; a flinch, nay, several, from its acting head Coco Quisumbing (a former journalist who must have seen her share of atrocities). A newsroom falling silent, a cry oR two punctuating every televised twitch of pain. Drivers huddled around the roadside cafeteria’s radio, imagining what they cannot see. Mothers and wives and children and lovers across the nation wondering: what if he was my husband, lover, brother, son?

There are places our minds can hardly bear to tread. The man pulling at that string; what psyche pulses within?

We know violence; we know rage. This is something else. The deliberate, methodical pacing of the lasso and the lash; the almost crooning “lessons” imparted with every jerk; the rapt attention on the face of the giving end of that rope.

Under other circumstances, that man would be in a straitjacket. In a world where might is often presented as proof of righteousness, that man is an officer of the law.

As was Himmler and every Nazi torturer. As was the man who left a bloody trail across Luzon and the Visayas – sometimes they are even called heroes. It is not surprising to hear Quisumbing say that the CHR has an investigation caseload of more than a hundred cases of torture.

There are crimes so heinous they sweep away every comfortable rationale we’ve ever used to explain why it is “okay” some of the time to violate civil liberties, or why a word like “basic” (as in rights) comes with exemptions. The Ampatuan massacre is one crime, the torture of this still unknown man is another.

Let us rage, yes. And demand justice, yes.

But let us not forget that we are complicit in this crime – marginal accessories to be sure, but accessories all the same.

How many times have we shrugged off a murder of a journalist whose reputation was less than white as snow? How many times have we ranted (even silently), “kaya kayo pinapatay!” (that’s why they murder your ilk). When we think ignorance, uncouthness or even corruption is a good enough excuse for murder or any other form of violence, that’s a slippery slope we’re on.

When we accept, however, grudgingly that it is okay to kill an activist because he or she is probably playing footsie with communist guerrillas, we open the gates to all kinds of justification for murder.

When we cheer, however quietly, when old comrades are gunned down in the name of “people’s justice” we make work harder for defender of human rights.

When we praise berdugos for ridding our cities and towns of those pesky addicts, snatchers, holdup artists, we are saying, it’s okay for people in authority to violate the law if the result provides us a greater degree of comfort.

When we in media show footage of snatchers getting beaten up, or police precinct scenes of ordinary folk slapping and scratching at a suspect, and do not provide the all-important context – that this is a violation of a basic human rights -- we, too, are complicit in this.

So, too, when our race for ratings and circulation makes us drop the ball after a sensational week or two, as we go on to other stories that are breaking and, thus sexier, stories.

It is a heavy burden to impose on our sector, I know, but reality shows time and again that impunity is also partly due to short attention spans. There is no shortcut: conviction is what ultimately defeats a culture of impunity.

Democracy is messy, yes. We can understand why cops feel frustrated: they are overworked, underpaid, lacking of equipment and often at the mercy of imperious local government officials and their patrons in national government. You walk the tough streets of Tondo for a decade or so, you see criminals walk in and out of jail and hear your kids complain about not getting the education the children of other government officials enjoy – you’ll begin to ask if it’s worth it.

But there can be no other answer. There should be no other answer. Many years ago, a fine young police officer told me, in rather angry tones, while discussing a rubout he had personal knowledge of: “then why is it okay for rebels to kill?!” He went on to serve officials with a long list of massacres and murders to their names, and are now waging rearguard action against Lady Justice.

It is easy to weep for Cory, for Ninoy, for our heroes and our saints. The real test of our adherence to democracy and its principles is when the least lovable of our citizens face the gun and the blade and the whip as they are sacrificed at the altar of law and order.

Monday, August 9, 2010


This isn't so much an essay as a remembrance of some passages that stand me in good stead when my faith in the servants of God wavers.

There are a couple of books that are sources of strength for those days when fear, despondence and cynicism raise their ugly heads. "To Kill A Mockingbird" is a favorite. Another is from a later era though it tackles themes dating back of the days when warm bodies flitted to and fro the catacombs.

The film never did match the depth of Morris L. West’s novel “The Shoes of the Fisherman”.

Science, rebellion, crime and salvation, power and compassion, rage and redemption -- the story of life, the history of human kind distilled in a work of such integrity it refuses to give us a pat ending.

Our parents taught us about a loving God who understood the difficult choices faced by his children. They introduced us to flawed but compassionate priests. It is to their credit and God's grace that the horrid, tawdry and evil things perpetrated by shepherds of His flock have failed to jar us into letting go of that radiant strip leading up into the promised land.

It is a destination, that land. As old-time Pilgrims know, WHEN isn't as important as HOW.

When shepherds become wolves, when the road to salvation becomes a nightmare, when too many of God's children are sacrificed to the exigencies of power, there is West, with his wry humor and dogged belief in the tenacity of goodness, to prop up wavering faith.

When one begins to wonder, West shines a light on what can be.

And so this passage, from the time of Conclave, when two of the Church's most powerful princes -- the Camerlengo Cardinal Valerio Rinaldi, and the bulldog of the Sacred College, Cardinal Leone -- muse about what-ifs should they be given a chance to live their lives over.

Cardinal Leone:
“I’ve thought about it often... If I didn’t marry- and I’, not sure but that’s what I needed to make me halfway human- I’d be a country priest with just enough theology to hear confession, and just enough Latin to get through Mass and the sacramental formulae. But with heart enough to know what griped in the guts of other men and made them cry into their pillows at night. I’d sit in front of my church on a summer evening and read my office and talk about the weather and the crops, and learn to be gentle to the poor and humble with the unhappy ones…

"You know what I am now? A walking encyclopaedia of dogma and theological controversy. I can smell out an error faster than a Dominican. And what does it mean? Nothing. Who cares about theology except the theologians? We are necessary, but less important than we think. The Church is Christ- Christ and the people. And all the people want to know is whether or not there is a God, and what is His relation with them, and how they can get back to Him when they stray.”

Rinaldi:“Large questions, not to be answered by small minds or gross ones.”

Tonight, I go to bed praying for priests with hearts that understand those who cower in the dark.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Journalist Ding Gagelonia re-posted this morning a press release sent to his inbox.

“MCC Board Approves $434 Million Philippines Compact,” says the release from the Millenium Challenge Corporation of the United States of America, which has graphics as American as anything can be without Uncle Sam himself.

The release says non-government organizations, private sector firms and the Philippine government and people worked to come up with a “homegrown program.” MCC Chief Executive Officer Daniel Yohannes praises the stakeholders “for tackling difficult challenges to create tangible opportunities for growth and prosperity.”

“The Filipinos have articulated a clear vision to improve the quality of their lives through a technically, environmentally, and socially sound plan,” Yohannes adds. “I am confident that the country’s ongoing commitment to positive reforms, accountability and transparency, and the timely implementation of the compact will deliver tangible results.”

It’s understandable, President Benigno Aquino III, sir, that your very high trust rating should attract offers of help and all kinds of partnerships, whether of a bilateral or multilateral nature.

After the heavy baggage of corruption that saddled the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, it must be a great relief for government and private sector leaders to be hailed as advocates of hope instead of co-conspirators in crime.

For example, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Philippines, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), GTZ, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), have expressed their willingness to help the government come up with a National Action Plan against Climate Change (NAPCC), which must be put in place by April 2011, based on the Climate Change Act or Republic Act 9729.

In the case of the MCC, $54.3 million of the total aid package will go to computerize and streamline business processes in the Bureau of Internal Revenue, to improve revenue collection and reduce opportunities for corruption.

Some $214 million will allow the construction and repair of 200 kilometers of Samar Road, which passes through 15 municipalities.

Anybody who has been to Samar will not begrudge residents of that beautiful but impoverished island this badly-needed help. It will be interesting to see how the engineering works will go. Samar is one of the few places in this country with a still significant New People’s Army (NPA) presence. I can imagine American troops coming in for some medical and disaster relief missions. The USAID, which has a Filipino-American director (Maryknoll-educated Gloria Steele) for the Philippines, should also be shepherding a number of projects in Samar, especially those aimed at ensuring “availability of high-quality medicines to treat life-threatening diseases including HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.” Samar, one of poorest areas in the country, suffers high incidence of the last two diseases.


The portion of the MCC release that intrigued me was this:
“… the compact includes $120 million to expand Kalahi-CIDSS, a community-based, rural development program. This innovative approach to development strengthens local accountability and empowers poor communities to design and drive the projects they need to increase their incomes and improve their lives.”

That’s big money and, unlike the Samar road project, will be dispersed throughout the countryside of this archipelago. I initially imagined an NGO and asked what umbrella it belonged to. After all, the term NGO no longer has the purer-than-Caesar’s-wife cache that it enjoyed before Agile consultants and women urban poor leaders with mansions, not to mention Peace Bond “commissioners” – all self-proclaimed activists for good governance -- had sectors wondering about the need to police the police.

But a cursory skimming of a notebook confirmed that Kalahi is the critical conduit of government's cash aid.

Its website http://kalahi.dswd.gov.ph/index.php?option=com_content&view=frontpage&Itemid=1 states:

“KALAHI-CIDSS is the Philippine government’s flagship poverty-alleviation project implemented by the Department of Social Welfare and Development through the financial support of the World Bank. It stands for Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan- Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services.

KALAHI CIDSS entrusts the poor with greater powers, supports poor LGUs in local development, and invests heavily on people, not just projects.

KALAHI-CIDSS believes the poor know who need help the most and that their skills and potentials could be harnessed to undertake development.

Funds are released directly to the villager’s KALAHI-CIDSS bank accounts. Villagers also manage, monitor and supervise the implementation of sub-projects. These sub-projects were implemented faster and cheaper compared to traditional implementation of projects in the Philippines (Mid-term Review, 2006).

KALAHI-CIDSS’ built-in transparency mechanisms have nearly attained for the Project a nil record in graft and corruption. Through a complaints and grievance system, issues pertaining to the project are addressed expeditiously."

The DSWD Secretary (currently Corazon “Dinky” Soliman) is the national project director of Kalahi. Her short message on the website notes:
“With 5,236 community sub-projects, KALAHI-CIDSS has been able reach 4,583 barangays in the poorest 200 municipalities in 42 provinces and benefited 1.1 million households and an estimated 6.6 million poor Filipinos nationwide.”

Now, let me be clear. Covering Dinky when she was DSWD secretary, I thought her efficient, effective and certainly capable of motivating her “troops” to march to hell and back.

That’s not just a figure of speech. In Mindanao you will hear plenty of people speak in awe of the social workers who brave the battle lines between government troops and rebels to get civilians out of harm’s way.

It is no picnic. There have been a number of times social workers and their wards have been literally caught in the crossfire just minutes after wresting a ceasefire pledge from both sides.

Dinky can be hokey and corny and her aggressive good cheer can actually make grouchy seem attractive, but she has been effective in the DSWD.

She has also faced charges of benefiting from the scandalous issuance in 2001 of the P10-billion Poverty Eradication and Alleviation Certificate (PEACe) bonds.

The government will soon have to pay P38 billion for the P10 billion issued. I don't know about you, Mr. President. You're said to be, um, careful with money. If you think paying three times the original amount of debt in less than ten years doesn't stink, consider that the Caucus of Development NGO Networks (Code NGO), brokers of the deal, took in a P1.4-billion commission. That should get your ranting and raving!

It was Marissa Camacho-Reyes, the sister of former Finance Minister Jose Isidro Camacho, who engineered the deal. But Dinky’s Peace Equity Access for Community Empowerment (PEACe) Foundation received part of that commission.

The DSWD secretary says she was no longer part of Code NGO when it negotiated the PEACe Bonds but expresses willingness to face the Truth Commission on the matter. Columnist Alvin Capino notes that Dinky was very close to Mrs. Arroyo (as, by all accounts, she is close to Mr. Aquino).

Close ties
In his column, Capino points out:

“Just to highlight the influence of Code-NGO at that time, just a month after the issuance of the controversial Peace Bonds in October 2001, Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was the guest in the Code-NGO 3rd National Congress held at the UP Diliman where Mrs. Arroyo acknowledged the key role of Soliman, Deles and Songco in EDSA 2 and in her administration.”

It does pay to have the guts to warble saccharine anthems like “If We Hold On” (to a beleaguered Mrs. Arroyo, just days before ditching her) or ask questions like, “what will you sing?” (to you, Sir, after you bared plans to join the post-inaugural sing-a-long).

Sometimes, Dinky’s penchant for theatrics does get the better of her, leading to verbal somersaults that insult the intelligence of her audience. For example, take the following paragraphs from a November 17, 2005 article by Luz Rimban for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ):

“FORMER social welfare secretary Dinky Soliman has confessed to being part of a government group that used public funds for President Arroyo’s 2004 presidential campaign.

“Appearing as witness at the resumption of the Citizens’ Congress for Truth and Accountability, Soliman apologized for helping distribute free insurance cards from the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth) to voters in areas considered strongholds of Arroyo’s rivals, among them movie actor Fernando Poe Jr, during the 2004 campaign.

“The CCTA heard testimony yesterday which said that money coming from the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) was diverted to pay for the Philhealth cards. Philhealth card holders are supposed to pay insurance premiums of around P1,000, but during the campaign, voters got them for free.

“In areas where the opponents are strong, especially FPJ, we decided to increase government assistance by way of Philhealth cards distribution…. I personally went to Pangasinan to distribute Philhealth cards as part of the campaign,” said Soliman, who resigned from the Arroyo cabinet in July. Pangasinan was Poe’s home province.

“Saying she had “decided to speak my truth here today and publicly apologize for the betrayal of trust when I was secretary of the DSWD,” Soliman said she did not realize then that what she was doing was electioneering.”
(itals and boldface mine)

The President seems to consider every criticism is a sign of a conspiracy to drag him down. Actually, it’s an indication that he is taken seriously.

It would be easy to dismiss his pledge to institute a transparent, honest and morally and ethically upright regime as just another burst of hot air. I won’t. So I’m going to repeat an earlier plea:

Mr. President, you cannot toy with accountability. You cannot orate about new dawns and a Truth Commission, yet refuse to even acknowledge perfectly legitimate concerns involving your hand-picked men and women.

We don’t expect you to kick out Dinky and other aides facing the same challenges. But we do expect you to order Dinky and the rest – and that includes the head of your Truth Commission – to face the people and, without smoke and mirrors, confront accusations of unethical conduct.

You promised us a rundown of the nation’s problems after an “inventory.” You even made us journalists look unreasonable for asking a man who’d asked a nation to stake their hopes on him, to give his roadmap to progress.

What you’ve given us so far are charges against your predecessors, including some that have had to be tweaked because certain folk played fast and loose with figures and processes.

“Modified” has become your administration’s favorite term.

I’ll take the misses; Filipinos didn’t elect you for efficiency or for any track record of achievement. What’s disturbing is when your administration starts modifying its stress on core values bannered by your campaign.

You cannot demand full trust from the people just on your say-so, Mr. President. Rather, you owe them daily proof of adherence to the compact you'd sold them in the campaign

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


*Inspired by the New Yorker essay on Winston Marsalis’ tribute to Louie Armstrong, I’m sharing this edited version of a Southpaw (The Manila Times) column on the musician.

It still sticks in the mind, that opening scene from “Good Morning, Vietnam!” Americans bringing home their dead and wounded; strapping lads missing limbs, eyes and, in some cases, missing souls. Youth wondering what they’d done to deserve the hell they’d just gone through. Wondering, too, what the little, yellow gooks had done to deserve burning rain and hurtling rockets, and the loss of the land tilled by generations of ancestors.

The gore and filth of war, the misery of men forced to kill in order to survive; the psychic scream as one puzzled over the meaning of such choices. Local folk, from a chopper vantage point looking like so many ants, except that they weren’t chasing after food but fleeing for their lives. And meandering across this grim landscape, laughter wrapped in a gravel voice, the lilting strains of “What A Wonderful World.”

Can’t count the number of times I’ve badgered jazz-bar DJ's to show the video from the movie, ignoring the frowns of neck-tied yuppies who preferred Kenny G. Poor souls, tired and frazzled, never quite catching up in the race for mammon; the last thing they needed were cadavers leaving scarlet trails in their tequilas.

It’s not masochism that draws me to the video. It’s just this yearning to make some sense of a crazy world. Louie Armstrong’s song may not offer answers, but it sure gives comfort, a reassurance that even if men and women succeed in their deeds of mayhem today, tomorrow may be a different story.

Armstrong’s chuckle doesn’t represent oblivion or escapism. Its power comes from a lifetime of braving storms. It is the belly laugh of a man who has clawed and crawled through the muck and discovered pearls under the swill.

Satchmo. Father of jazz, the music of contradiction and discordance. Black genius whose songs flowed across the plains and boondocks, and touched both eastern cosmopolites and rednecks, though so many places were closed to him and his integrated band.

Satchmo of the puffed cheecks. Satchmo of swing, a rhythm that never fails to send feet tapping, fingers snapping, and ass and tits bouncing.

The world celebrates his birthday on July 4, that quintessential American holiday where millions broil hotdogs and corn on the cob beneath the rockets’ red glare.

Actually, Armstrong was never sure about his birthday. Records show two separate dates. But for years, he was America’s unofficial ambassador of goodwill, spreading the young country’s magic dust across ennui-filled Europe.

An old AP compilation of anecdotes on Satchmo’s travel notes that he may have been the lone person to go back and forth through Checkpoint Charlie at the height of the Cold War. East German guards and American troops would melt at the sight of his black, joyous face.

His was not an easy life. The illegitimate son of a poor New Orleans woman, he was left with his grandma. Then he got his ma back but had to drop out of elementary school to support her and a younger sister. He wasn’t always a ball of cherubic glee. The young Armstrong roamed the streets selling rags and coal. He stayed briefly at a home for delinquent boys. But he had talent, a lust for life and an internal compass that kept him away from them cliffs of no return.

He wasn’t an activist in the usual sense. Armstrong preferred blowing the blues away to marching on the streets. But he fought fiercely for his people and once canceled a foreign tour to protest the insults hurled at the young students of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Night after night, Satchmo rolled across America, across the world, blanketing the earth with dulcet notes that celebrated life even in its bleakest moments.

His was a wry voice but never bitter. He had that husky, conspiratorial tone down pat, a friend sharing slightly wicked secrets with you. Satchmo always seemed to be urging: go, push, just one more step, just one more jump, just a little more tilt to those hips.Because it was Armstrong, the man deemed more trusted than one’s own kin, you took that leap. And when you landed unscathed, you, too, would flash that giant grin.

If I think of Satchmo these days, if I go back nightly to my old lullaby, it is because events seem to drag back old, haunting memories.

Too many bags returning from the field. Too many officials lying through their teeth. Too many people too ready to slash and flail for the slightest cause. Too many getting pulled, inexorably, into the rushing currents of hell.

Coming out weary from a day’s grind of bad news, happiness is pulling your head back and closing your eyes to listen to an old friend saying, hey, kid, lighten up. It’s still a wonderful world.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


The abs-cbnnews.com website recently carried excerpts from journalist Maritess Vitug’s July 30 Genaro Ong lecture.

Vitug is an award-winning journalist and author of “Shadow of Doubt”, the book on the Supreme Court that qualifies as a non-fiction blockbuster in this country. She is editor in chief of Newsbreak. (While no longer published regularly as a magazine, Newsbreak remains involved in investigative or, at least, in-depth journalism.)

Her speech, “Advocacy and Its Place in Journalism” tackles issues that have not only split journalist into opposing camps, but have also led to many a brawl between journalists and their audience.

Vitug describes the Freedom of Information bill, which died in the last few hours of the last Congress, as “a big boost to our hunger for transparency.” The bill has been re-filed. President Benigno Aquino III, who plucked from the media three well-known personalities to man his communications group, earlier said he supports the bill, but has since been silent on it.

Hopefully, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte (a former reporter), encourages his colleagues in the new majority to swiftly pass this measure. Hopefully, too, media groups and other advocates of transparency in government wage a more sustained, systematic lobby.

During his first State of the Nation Address (Sona), Mr. Aquino challenged journalists:

“May you give new meaning to the principles of your vocation: to provide clarity to pressing issues; to be fair and truthful in your reporting, and to raise the level of public discourse.”

Vitug welcomes the challenge. There certainly is nothing wrong with wanting to improve journalism standards. No media organization would dismiss this call.

But as the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) notes, to raise the challenge while ignoring the back story –140 journalists murdered, 103 of these during President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s nine-year rule – seems to be adding insult to injury.

The country's largest organization of journalists says the media needs to remain "uncompromising" in reporting the truth to the public.

Vitug also notes that the task of scrutinizing government actions and policies should be independent of a leader's popularity rating.

Certainly, the relationship can't be one way. As the NUJP notes:

"While we heed the President’s call, his government must also ensure a more secure environment for journalists so they do not lose their jobs if not their lives in the performance of their work.

If the Aquino administration will be true to its promises of reforms, it should ensure unhampered access of information to the public so that journalists can do their jobs better."

In the days leading to Mr. Aquino’s inaugural, journalists were asked about a “honeymoon.” The tenor of the question suggested a temporary suspension of criticism in favour of giving a very popular new leader the benefit of the doubt. I remember saying that media is not obliged to give anyone a honeymoon. What is expected of us is fairness, which should be a given on any day and for everyone.

Vitug believes the press can’t be complacent just because Mr. Aquino’s ratings are stratospheric. Nor, she adds, should journalists cede "the tenets of journalism and the standards of accuracy, fairness and honesty that cover our work.”

“Without these tenets, we will lose our credibility. We will lose our reason for being,” Vitug points out.


What could provoke debate is Vitug’s view on advocacy.

“Some propose that journalists should be advocates. Advocacy doesn’t necessarily jibe with journalism. Reporters, those who write the news, should not engage in advocacy.

But opinion writers, those who write editorials and columns, are free to advocate, to take positions on issues and personalities. Magazines which interpret and analyze the news also usually take positions.”
(itals mine)

Many people confuse advocacy journalism with "bias." The latter is a loaded and very subjective term.

Merriam Webster On-line defines advocacy journalism as "journalism that advocates a cause or expresses a viewpoint." That's a neutral definition.

Compare that with its definition of "bias":

"...bent, tendency b : an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice c : an instance of such prejudice"

Bias is usually what the beholder makes it out to be. The criterion can shift like sand. Google "media bias" and you'll be dropped into the middle of a melee between "conservatives" and "liberals," with a distinct who-is-not-our-friend-is-our-enemy mindset.

The "Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting" website says that among the questions a critical reader/listener/viewer should raise is "Who are the sources?"

"Be aware of the political perspective of the sources used in a story. Media over-rely on "official" (government, corporate and establishment think tank) sources. For instance, FAIR found that in 40 months of Nightline programming, the most frequent guests were Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Elliott Abrams and Jerry Falwell. Progressive and public interest voices were grossly underrepresented.

To portray issues fairly and accurately, media must broaden their spectrum of sources. Otherwise, they serve merely as megaphones for those in power."

The group gives this advice:

"Count the number of corporate and government sources versus the number of progressive, public interest, female and minority voices. Demand mass media expand their rolodexes; better yet, give them lists of progressive and public interest experts in the community."


It's pretty clear that FAIR regards itself as progressive. On the other hand, the conservative Media Research Center, which sends out a daily Cyber Alert report to 40,000 subscribers, says of the need for "balance" in journalism:

"Leaders of America's conservative movement have long believed that within the national news media a strident liberal bias existed that influenced the public's understanding of critical issues. On October 1, 1987, a group of young determined conservatives set out to not only prove — through sound scientific research — that liberal bias in the media does exist and undermines traditional American values, but also to neutralize its impact on the American political scene."

Some people admire advocacy journalism. Others see it as a corruption of media's traditional role. Some even call it by a different name: citizen journalism, public journalism.

American journalist and sociologist, Ernesto Aguilar, notes that the debate over perspective was already raging in 1947, when Hutchins Commission addressed "a broad array of questions dealing with the future of a free press in a society dramatically changed from the society out of which the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grew."

Aguilar points out:
"According to the commission, by 1947, we lived in a time where there are so many competing opinions and viewpoints and so many things being published in so many different media that no one person can study and review ALL matter relevant to many of the important decisions today. Given the changed circumstances of society, the Hutchins Commission grappled with the question of what the role of a free press — or for that matter the First Amendment — is or should be today."

More than six decades after the report's publication, we're still wrestling with the issue. And on this point, unity built on other causes (press freedom, an end to violence against journalists) shows signs of fraying.

There are those who believe advocacy journalism is needed to give voices and faces to society's margins. In April 2000, Canadian journalist Sue Careless explained to colleagues that,

"...when the mainstream media ignores, trivializes or seriously distorts your cause or your community, then your cause or community needs its own media. If your people are never quoted or they are quoted inaccurately, if they are stereotyped or misinformation is spread about them, then they need their own face and voice. Every significant social movement has had its own media."

The fact that advocacy journalists openly disclose their leanings and affiliations is often compared favorably to traditional media's alleged penchant of masking its bias for the benefit of a) advertisers, b) the interests of owners and their friends, and c) friends in the elite corridors of power.


Three decades ago, "advocacy" was "alternative". The positioning was clear. It was coverage for the people by the people.

If "people" seemed to cover only those of a certain political bent, that was because alternative journalism was geared to break through barricades put up by an elitist media serving the powers-that-be. This was the era of national liberation movements rising against various strongmen and dictatorships (often propped up by world powers even as the latter declaimed about democratic ideals). Supporters of alternative and advocacy journalism staked their claim on the hundred year-old legacy of Chicago Post editorial writer Finley Peter Dunne, who is often credited for this line: "The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

It's a great line but Dunne's fans didn't quite get it. Dunne, true to the spirit of Chicago and the times' robust, muck-raking journalism, penned that famous line in wry, sardonic Irish-brogue style:

"Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th'ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward.

(Just an aside: Dunne gained prominence in 1898, after his literary character, Mr. Dooley, celebrated the victory of Commodore George Dewey over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay.)


Back in Dunne's time, both op-ed writers and reporterss gleefully waved the flags of their causes. Over time, media organizations have come up with thick tomes on ethics. And still we argue. The din and clangor actually indicate the importance accorded media, whether the audience is the President or Mang Juan.

So, can reporters can "advocate" without being biased?

Yes, they can. For example, just ensuring that neglected issues -- say, domestic violence – see the light of day is an advocacy. Reporters can push to increase coverage on a serious (if sometimes, non-sexy) issue – like child’s rights or gay rights. Reporters can also play a major role in seeing that such issues are not trivialized. This is reasonable, even laudable.

Reporters are not stenographers and should go beyond he-said-she-said output. Sometimes, all that is needed to push an advocacy is context. Jon Stewart is not a journalist, but his Daily Show can teach us a thing or two about context. Some of his most effective clips involve nothing more than showing a public figure’s most recent statement and then following this with a contrasting message from an earlier period.

What a reporter should not do is climb the soapbox. A news report, a feature story is not a declamation or oratorical piece.

Getting the facts -- and getting them straight -- is also only half the battle. Advocacy journalists have to resist the temptation to censor the other side and shove out data that seemingly undermines one's position.

They also have to scale down the "telling" in favor of "showing." A reporter has no business calling a government official a liar. Citing conflicting statements and actions, or data that doesn’t add up, would present more graphic – and believable – proof of missteps or other more deliberate wrong-doings.

But this needs homework. If you do not review notes or other literature, chances are you won’t be able to ask a public figure to explain the seeming contradiction in statements and policies.

Advocacy journalism is not a license to throw out standards and ethical behavior. Advocacy is not an excuse to junk fairness as a requisite for any report. This holds for opinion writers, too.

The best way journalist-advocates can serve their cause is via good journalism. It is easier to convince readers and audience when a report is comprehensive, accurate and fair. Playing fast and loose with facts does your cause a disservice. You don’t have to be a journalist to understand this.

Monday, August 2, 2010


News of a study upending the conventional wisdom of calcium as lifesaver (or quality of life crutch) for post-menopausal women (and older men) brought yet another reminder that medicine is very much an inexact science.

University of Auckland medical researchers discovered a 30% increase risk for heart attack among people older than 40 who take calcium supplements. Dr. Ian Reid, lead researcher, said the study reviewed results of already published studies involving almost 12,000 people. He told BusinessWeek:
"The extent of that increased risk is enough to completely counterbalance the small beneficial effect that calcium tablets have on numbers of fractures."

A similar report by the LA Times noted:
“…recent studies have shown that the pills provide little benefit: Even though they may increase bone density, they do not reduce the risk of fractures or of death. Now, some researchers are becoming convinced that the supplements not only provide no benefit, but that they can even be harmful, increasing the risk of heart attacks by nearly a third.”

The news raised a small frisson of anger in me – and some relief at not having yet plunked down hard-earned money for imported “extra-strength” calcium supplements.

I am a breast cancer survivor, having undergone modified radical mastectomy of the left breast and a complete chemotherapy course. While no cancer has since been detected in regular tests, I am taking daily anti-cancer medication for five years. This drug, which I chose over a cheaper medicine that increases (slightly) the risk of uterine cancer, hikes the risk for osteoporosis – which runs in our family. To stave this off, you get bone density tests and then get an injection if results show brittleness indicating a degenerative state. Everybody else recommends calcium supplements, especially since my stomach cannot stand milk in its pure form.

Nasty shocks

It can be maddening, this regular debunking of conventional wisdom. One day you’re thinking about five, maybe ten, more years to live hale and well; the next you’re being told that an erstwhile miracle drug has turned out to be yet another Trojan horse bearing deadly gifts.

Take estrogen. The naturally occurring hormone, which plays a major role in the reproductive cycle, is also what gives the oomph in women. The onset of menopause, which is caused partly because the body’s supply of estrogen dwindles, can lead to a host of symptoms: hot flashes, a sudden drop in libido, severe mood swings, increase in body and facial hair and a propensity for brittle bones.

The danger to bones was especially troubling. Other medical breakthroughs and higher living standards in developed nations meant longer life expectancy. Brittle bones significantly lessen the quality of that “bonus time”.

Hormone replacement therapy was seen as a major boon for women. It was touted to increase bone density, lower the incidence heart disease and stroke, and delay the onset of dementia. It was marketed as the perfect “cure” for “female problems” at a time women were being told that menopause was no reason to retreat from life’s pleasures, sex included.

Then in 2002, the Journal of the American Medical Association said women who take estrogen for many years may be at increased risk for ovarian cancer.

“In a study known as the Women's Health Initiative, researchers at the National Cancer Institute used patient interviews and medical records to track the history of hormone use and cancer among 44,241 women. Overall, women who took only estrogen were 60 percent more likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who didn't take any hormones. Among women who took estrogen for 20 years or more, the risk of the disease was roughly three times higher than average.”

This was followed by the National Institutes of Health 2004 report that cited estrogen-only therapy as increasing the risk of stroke and deep vein thrombosis in women. That finding prompted the Women’s Health Initiative to call a premature halt to a study with 16,000 subjects – by 2007 a new study by the group said the risk of stroke was around 32% across all age groups.

Anger was still bubbling among the millions of women who’d received estrogen-replacement therapy when news broke out of clear links between the procedure and increased risk of breast cancer. Worse, the study found that HRT provided no benefit against heart disease and stroke.

Nature is best

Moderation is often junked in the chase for health. Vitamin E, for example, has once hailed as effective against the effects of aging, cataracts, and helpful in preventing cancer and heart disease.

The UC Berkeley wellness guide to dietary supplements describes the fat-soluble vitamin, discovered at the famous university more than 80 years ago, as a star among nutrients for at least 25 years.

“Vitamin E is an important antioxidant that exists in several forms, the most potent of which is alpha tocopherol, the form usually found in Vitamin E supplements. Like other antioxidants, Vitamin E protects cells against the effects of free radicals, which are potentially damaging by-products of life processes. Free radicals can damage cells and may contribute to the development of heart disease and cancer. Vitamin E may play a role in immune function. The RDA for vitamin E is just 15 milligrams (about 23 IU) a day. The upper limit is 1,000 milligrams (about 1,500 IU) a day.”

But the wellness letter admits that, “after reviewing subsequent clinical trials that had yielded disappointing or conflicting results, we softened our endorsement of vitamin E supplements.”

It cited the 2004 meta-analysis from Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, which concluded that “high doses of vitamin E (more than 400 IU a day) taken long term may slightly increase the overall risk of dying—by about 4%. Lower doses of vitamin E (200 IU or less) did not increase the risk.” It also acknowledged the absence of clinical research showing that vitamin E supplements are beneficial.

The confession ends:
“Nearly all the clinical trials on vitamin E from the past few years have yielded negative, inconclusive, or neutral results. Get vitamin E from foods—nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, whole grains, and leafy greens. There is no reason to take vitamin E supplements.”

Indeed, in 2007 the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a University of Copenhagen meta-study on 67 placebo-controlled trials that covered around 232,000 test subjects.

Their conclusion:
“Vitamin supplements taken by millions of people every day for their health could be increasing their risk of death.”

That doesn’t mean vitamins are dangerous to our health. It means we’re better off getting these from food rather than gulping down handfuls of pills.