By Ellen Tordesillas
Why are high government officials so eager to release unverified information that later turn out to be false?
Spreading false information is not funny at all. Worse, it is coming from official sources.
Last Sunday, Benito Ramos, executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, released to media the information that a Chinese vessel rammed a Philippine fishing boat, Axl John, last June 20 on the waters near Bolinao, Pangasinan.
Four of the eight fishermen aboard Axl John were rescued but one later died. Four are still missing.
How sure was Ramos that it was a Chinese vessel? He said that was according to the fishermen who saw the markings on the ship. Apparently the name was not written in Roman alphabet which Filipinos are familiar with.
The fishermen said they were expecting the vessel to rescue them and were shocked when they were hit and left adrift in the rough seas.
Based on that skimpy information, Ramos shared with members of media his thoughts: "That's why it's suspicious."
He concluded that the ramming was done on purpose because he said, "If it was accidental, then they should have helped."
With the Scarborough or Panatag shoal standoff winding down, reporters irresponsibly connected the incident to it describing the area of the incident as "north of Scarborough shoal." Never mind if the disputed shoal is something like 180 nautical miles away.
The next day, having rested at the hospital, the fishermen were not sure anymore if it was really a Chinese vessel because they said they didn't see any member of the crew. They also couldn't tell the difference between Chinese characters from Japanese characters.
Here comes the Philippine Coast Guard saying that "it's likely" the vessel that rammed AXL John was MV Peach Mountain, a Hongkong —registered bulk carrier.
Tuesday, Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda, quoting a report from Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, said, "With a great degree of certainty, Philippine Navy was able to discount Peach Mountain."
"The Philippine Navy was able to plot their route and their speed based on those parameters that we are able to compute and to determine with a great degree of certainty that it (Peach Mountain) was not responsible for the incident," Lacierda explained adding that investigation by the Navy is ongoing.
Coast Guard officials also tried to undo the "damage" created by Ramos' statement saying that it's possible that the big vessel didn't see the Axl John which was understandable given that it's small, the weather was bad and visibility was poor.
This is not the first time that media and the public were given unverified information by government officials.
The National Union of Journalists of Philippines condemned statements by government officials saying Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani, who is reported to be in the custody of the Abu Sayyaf, is being suspected of having links with the al-Qaida terrorist network.
An official was quoted as saying that Atyani was seen as a "terrorist cell contact" citing the several interviews conducted by Atyani with slain al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden months before the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
"A government official maligning the reputation of a journalist simply because of guilt by association from stories that he/she legitimately gathered and reported is extremely irresponsible," NUJP said.
We should also include Land Registration Authority Eulalio Diaz III who gave the prosecution team in the impeachment trial of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona a list of 45 properties allegedly owned by Corona. The prosecution, in turn, released it to media who went to town with the list.
It turned out later that correct number was only 21.
Government officials should be reminded that giving out false information to the public is as bad as blocking access to information. It's rumor mongering. It's a violation of "Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees" which requires that "Public officials and employees shall perform and discharge their duties with the highest degree of excellence, professionalism, intelligence and skill."
One also shudders to think that government decisions are made based on wrong information