Wednesday July 18, 2018

Seares: Killing stories at Customs in Lacson’s Senate expose

“Here’s the problem. Periodically, the headlines shout of yet another big tale of corruption at the Bureau of Customs. But the anger and indignation are not sustained. The corruption mess is deliberately downplayed by the customs cretins and consigned to the dustbin of journalism history, ably assisted by their cohorts of p.r. firms, always ready and able to kill a story that puts the bureau in a bad light.”
-- Sen. Ping Lacson, in Aug. 23, 2017 privileged speech at the Senate

Then president Benigno Aquino III’s customs chief, Angelito Alvarez, was kicked out in 2011, after only 14 months in office. His successor, Rozzano Rufino “Ruffy” Biazon, offered to resign the day after PNoy included the Bureau of Customs in the shame list in his fourth state-of-the-nation address on July 22, 2013. (Biazon finally quit on Dec. 2, 2013 not for the mess at the customs but after he was charged by the ombudsman with corruption over a P1.9 million pork barrel when he was still a congressman.)

It’s a “hopeless bureau,” Biazon was warned by his friends.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, in his Aug. 23 Senate speech exposing the top-to-bottom corruption at the customs, highlighted by a P270 million a day payola and the smuggling of P6.4 billion worth of illegal drugs, said a lot worse. He said a “mafia” controls BOC and it is “more powerful than the government and the president.”

Lacson identified personnel, from then commissioner Nicanor Faeldon to “lowly” guards, who were allegedly getting pay-offs or “tara.” He didn’t include journalists but his accusation was clear: media were among those who, assisted by p.r. outfits, suppressed, or minimized the fallout from, bad news about BOC.

Media’s part

The role of reporters covering Customs and, by implication, their editors involved, Lacson said:

■ Short-lived interest of media in any big scandal that erupts at BOC;

■ Deliberate “down-playing” and even “killing” of any story that smears the customs image, which “consign” the story “to the dustbin of journalism history.”

■ Collusion or conspiracy by the “ customs cretins” (BOC officials or journalists or both) and p.r. outfits.


Lacson considers the mess at customs an ancient problem. To most customs watchers, BOC has proved impervious to the clean-up efforts of the last two presidents who waved the anti-corruption banner: Noynoy Aquino and his “walang mahirap kung walang kurap” and Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and corruption.

Apparently, media has failed to serve as watchdog at BOC, as ineffective as the monitoring and gate-keeping at Customs. The watchdog must be asleep or, per Lacson’s theory, sucking a steak bone. That, despite the army of reporters who descend on BOC’s headquarters office in Manila and its satellite offices, including the Cebu port.

A measure announced by then customs chief Biazon was to reduce the number of reporters covering BOC. Would you believe that more than a hundred were supposedly assigned by their respective news outlets to the Manila customs head office alone? Biazon learned that some of them didn’t limit themselves to accepting their share of the weekly “tara” but also worked as fixers for smugglers.

Annoyed acceptance

The major media news organizations keep a tight watch over customs coverage, given the past history and reputation. How Biazon and his successors have dealt with others who are unauthorized to cover or have no genuine news outlets must be one of annoyed acceptance: just add cost of their upkeep to the “tara” schedule.

Despite the large assembly of reporters at the Customs beat, it produces mostly innocuous stories: reports of collection, movements of officials, etc. In rare cases, the occasional reported scandal is sourced or exposed outside BOC, not within, such as the seizure of P60.4 billion shabu found in a Luzon warehouse. In Cebu, for example, how many stories have been written about the new customs head who was included in Lacson’s “Kita Kita” payola list? Not even a profile or bio appears in news archives about her.

That dustbin

Lacson talked about the system “swallowing up” even the good people who come near BOC. That must include the media, if we are to believe Lacson’s allegations and the long-running critiques on the bureau.

The Lacson blockbuster, noticeably, is not followed by a deluge of Customs stories that pick up the thread of the senator’s narrative. Is the issue on the way to “the dustbin of journalism history”? Heard you: It’s already there.