FILIPINOS in the capital of Port Moresby and across Papua New Guinea woke up on Tuesday, November 10, to find themselves in the midst of 16,000 "illegal Pinoys".
Well, that is, if you are to believe what the Post-Courier, a second-rate Australian-owned daily newspaper, headlined on that day on the front page: "16,000 aliens", with the subhead, "More than 80 per cent of Filipinos are living illegally in PNG".
And the alleged source of the figures, according to the Post-Courier?
Well, no less than the Philippine Ambassador to PNG, Madam Shirley Ho-Vicario, who has been quoted in the report.
Madam Ho-Vicario, the daily reported, testified last Friday, November 6, at the Parliamentary Bipartisan committee probing the anti-Asian riots that occurred last May, where she purportedly revealed the existence of 19,000 Filipinos in PNG, of which 16,000 are illegal.
The committee wanted to know the reasons that triggered the marginalised Papua New Guinean to go into rioting and to loot variety shops and groceries owned and operated by Chinese in the Highlands and in Port Moresby.
The locals hate illegal aliens, particularly Asians whose numbers in PNG are growing, because they feel that these undocumented expatriates are robbing them of jobs and livelihood reserved for them under the law.
Flurry of emails
Immediately, a flurry of emails crisscrossed the PNG cyberspace, originating from Pinoy expatriates with access to the internet who expressed disbelief that there are 19,000 Filipinos in PNG, of which 16,000 are illegal.
A number have even rebuked the ambassador, calling her "traitor" and "stupid", for making public such highly-sensitive and derogatory information.
One hyper-sensitive Pinoy expat had called the Philippine Embassy with a threat to burn it down "for making the Filipinos look really, really bad in the eyes of the international community".
It couldn't be helped. Most of Pinoys in PNG are employed with valid documents as professionals - accountants, pharmacists, engineers, teachers, IT experts, foresters, miners, managers, administrative officers and others.
And now this damaging news report.
Already, Joey Sena, president of the Filipino Association of PNG (FAPNG), has expressed concern over the safety of his compatriots around the country.
He was quite aware that the recent racist attacks on Asians, particularly the illegal Chinese, and the alleged illegal businesses they operate, could now be directed to PNG Pinoys.
But then, he tried to tell the community to remain calm and urged the members to be vigilant of their own personal safety.
That morning when the story broke, Madam Ho-Vicario was already nursing a blood-pressure gone berserk, as she read the Post-Courier, horrified that the newspaper had put words into her mouth.
"How did [the Post-Courier] come up with these figures ?" she asked, as she read and reread the report, while noting that finally, the newspaper got her name right!
"This is pure fabrication!" she said.
Att noon, immediately after arriving at work, I went straight to our library to have a look at the day's editions of PNG's two daily newspapers - The National, the country's leading daily where I work, and the Post-Courier.
Our rival paper's front-page headline "16,000 aliens" quickly grabbed my eyes; and reading through the story, I couldn't believe what I was reading: That our ambassador had spilled the beans before a Parliamentary Bi-partisan committee hearing!
Immediately, however, I doubted the reliability and credibility of the story. You know why?
The night before, at about 7.25pm, I received an email from a long-time colleague working at Post-Courier as a subeditor, asking for the name of the Philippine Ambassador to PNG, and closing his message with: "It's just urgent ." In the newspaper work, it's deadline time at these
"I saw no harm in giving him our ambassador's name, although I was aware that it's quite unethical for a newspaper to ask for some info from a rival newspaper like The National.
Looking at the news story again, it dawned on me one thing: The reporter who had filed the story on the "16,000 aliens" never saw the ambassador at the alleged committee hearing because such hearing where she had purportedly testified on illegal Pinoys never took place.
First of all, how come he failed to know the ambassador's name?
I assumed that when he filed the story on Monday night, he left the name of the Philippine ambassador to PNG blank. So, when the subeditor, who is my colleague, edited the story, he found the ambassador's name missing in the copy, prompting him to get it from his own source: Me.
When I saw her at the embassy that afternoon, "Amba", as we refer to her during informal chats, was fuming, as she berated the Post-Courier reporter who filed the story and the daily paper - Post-Courier - that allowed a rubbish report to go to print.
"Ka Freddie, I need to counter this report as soon as possible." Amba said immediately after we shook hands. "The (Filipino) community has been put at risk because of these anti-Asian sentiments and I, personally, have been maligned by the report."
So what's the real story?
"I'm denying the report. It's all fabricated. It has no factual basis, it's unfounded and far from the truth.
'Print the truth'
"I demand that the Post-Courier retract the story and print the truth."
"There could never be 19,000 Filipinos living and working in this country," Amba said.
"I never appeared on the said committee hearing on that day to give evidence on this matter.
"I was never interviewed on that matter or present at the Bipartisan Parliamentary Inquiry (last Friday).
"I never knew who MP (Philip) Kilala is, how he looks . I just don't know him," Amba said, referring to the source which provided Post-Courier the fabricated figures of "19,000 Filipinos in PNG, of which 16,000 are illegal".
So, what's the real score on PNG Filipinos? I asked her.
According to official figures submitted by the Philippine Embassy in Port Moresby to the Philippine Congress as required of embassies worldwide, there are only 10,120 expatriates in the country as of June 2009.
About 670 of them are permanent residents, 6600 are temporary migrants (work permit holders), and 2850 which are considered "undocumented or irregular" (these are the holders of business visas and tourist visas).
Since I was the one to file the report on Amba's denial of the Post-Courier report, my boss editor reminded me to get the side of Post-Courier. So, I called the editor-in-chief, Blaise Nangoi, on his cell phone.
Getting both sides
Well, it is SOP in this job - getting both sides of the story. But it is something not practised in by the Post-Courier.
"We stand by our story," he told me over the phone.
The editor said their report was based on information their reporter obtained from a source that was at the parliamentary committee hearing when Amba purportedly gave evidence last Friday.
Categorically denying this, the ambassador told me that afternoon that "I was never at the Parliament last Friday".
The denial story that I filed came out the next day, Wednesday, and was headlined: "Philippine Embassy denies 'aliens' report".
On the same day, the chairman of the Parliamentary Bipartisan Committee on Asian-Owned and Operated Businesses in PNG, Jamie Maxton-Graham, Member of Parliament, sent a letter to Amba, stating:
The front page report stated in part that you appeared in person before my inquiry on Friday, November 6, during which you gave evidence that 16,000 out of 19,000 Filipino residents in this country are doing so illegally.That night when I phoned the Post-Courier's editor-in-chief to get the side of his paper, he told me: "We will not make any further report on this matter. We stand by our report ."
I wish to state categorically THAT YOU NEVER APPEARED [caps mine] before my Inquiry, either in person or through a representative on the date as stated by Post-Courier.
Neither have we received any written submission from your Embassy. The newspaper report is quite erroneous in that respect.
Talk about fairness in reporting, of good journalism.
However, in today's edition of the Post-Courier, it published the ambassador's denial of having appeared at the committee hearing, obviously in a desperate effort to wiggle out of the mess.
It finally admitted that it made an error in reporting that she appeared before the committee on Friday, November 6. "She did not attend and make a submission," the Post-Courier said.
However, while it earlier reported that Madam Ho-Vicario actually appeared at the bipartisan committee hearing last Friday where she purportedly disclosed the number of Filipinos in PNG and how many of them are illegal, the Post-Courier has made a turn-about and is now saying in today's report that MP Kikala stated on a bipartisan committee hearing last Monday that the Ambassador "informed" him of the 16,000 illegal Filipinos in the country.
He, however, was unable to tell the Post-Courier on what occasion did the ambassador divulge to him the derogatory information. Was it during a formal parliamentary bipartisan hearing? Was it during lunch or dinner? Was it during a drinking spree?
Or was he just fishing for some "blockbuster" story to get some attention and pluck himself out of obscurity?
Funny, while Amba has categorically said she "never knew MP Kikala or had met him", the (dis)honorable MP is claiming to have obtained the information directly from her.
But whatever this occasion was, it never happened. Madam Ho-Vicario was very clear in saying that "I never knew who MP (Philip) Kikala is, how he looks. I just don't know him".
Risk for Pinoys
So, it's very clear that the paper has conflicted itself while making the report in its own confusion to steer away from the heat.
Well, it is very clear now that the Philippine Embassy could not expect anything fairer from the offending daily, even a follow-up story rectifying the salient points of the report - the alleged 16,000 illegal Filipinos - and reporting the actual number of Filipino expatriates, or getting the ambassador's side of the issue.
To seek redress, the embassy is now consulting with the legal department of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in Manila for advice. It is also contemplating bringing the issue to the PNG Media Council.
True, Amba is bent on suing the newspaper.
Meantime, the Pinoys here are jittery as anti-Asian sentiments rage across PNG.
Thanks Post-Courier for making this hatred a reality now for us Filipinos!
Pictured: The "aliens" front page in the Post-Courier on November 10; Freddie Hernandez.
Thanks to Freddie Hernandez, this article is republished from his Letters from Port Moresby blog. He is a senior journalist on The National.