Changing narratives make a fishy story
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - June 21, 2019 - 12:00am

Let us go back to the original version of this story when it first broke out in the media.

While the Filipino nation was observing our Independence Day last June 12, Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana broke the news that about 22 of our fishermen on board the F/B Gem-Ver nearly perished at Recto Bank located at West Philippine Sea. The Recto Bank is one of the islets located near South China Sea where our country has overlapping territorial maritime claims with Beijing and other country claimants around this area.

Lorenzana disclosed that the Filipino fishing boat F/B Gem-Ver figured in a “collision” incident with a Chinese-flagged vessel, but that its 22 Filipino crewmembers were safely rescued by a passing Vietnamese ship. The Recto Bank is nearest to Palawan where the Western Command (Wescom) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is stationed.

“We denounce the actions of the Chinese fishing vessel for immediately leaving the incident scene and abandoned the 22 crewmembers to the mercy of the elements,” Lorenzana said. The incident took place Sunday evening, June 9 but according to Lorenzana, he got the incident report from Wescom only on the night of June 11.

The defense chief was in Lanao del Sur with President Duterte to celebrate the country’s 121st Independence Day when he got the Wescom incident report. Actually, Lorenzana had to cancel his scheduled guesting in my Kapihan sa Manila Bay on that day when he was summoned by President Duterte to come along with him to Lanao where they led the Independence Day rites there.

Days later, the Chinese embassy in Manila confirmed there was such an incident involving one of their fishing vessels and identified it as Yuemaobinyu 42212. But the Chinese embassy also claimed that the still unidentified ship captain of Yuemaobinyu 42212 decided to leave behind their victims when about six to seven Filipino fishing boats swarmed their steel-hulled ship. But Beijing promised to conduct its own investigation into this incident.

Fortuitously, Lorenzana reset his guesting at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay at a time that this incident has generated national outrage. Quoting from the incident report, Lorenzana noted the F/B Gem-Ver was anchored at the time when it was hit by the moving Chinese fishing vessel. Thus, Lorenzana clarified it was a case of “allision,” not collision. “I had to google it just to know the term ‘allision’ because it was also my first time to encounter such word,” he quipped. 

In a no-holds barred discussion during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast news forum, Lorenzana disclosed the Wescom did the initial investigation and processing of the facts gathered from the Gem-Ver ship captain and crewmembers. The Wescom subsequently turned over their report to the Philippine Coast Guard as the proper agency to further conduct the investigation.

According to Lorenzana, the ill-fated Gem-Ver is actually the mother ship while there were 19 smaller boats or bancas they use for line fishing. All their catch are then transferred to Gem-Ver and put in ice storage. From the testimony of the Gem-Ver cook who was the only one awake and saw the incoming Chinese vessel, Lorenzana quoted him as saying he woke up their ship captain who tried but failed to restart the engine of their fishing boat to avoid it.

The captain, or the skipper of the fishing vessel F/B Gem-Ver finally realized how fortunate they were to survive following their rescue. The realization dawned on Junel Insignea after they had a closed door meeting with government officials led by Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Emmanuel “Manny” Piñol.

The meeting took place last Wednesday at the hometown of the Gem-Ver fishermen in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro where they were brought by Philippine authorities after their rescue.

Also present in that meeting was Department of Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi as the Cabinet Officer for Regional Development for Region 4 that included the province of Mindoro. Both Piñol and Cusi first declared it was just a ”maritime accident” after conducting their respective initial inquiries into this incident.

Piñol and Cusi reported their findings and recommendations in the meeting at Malacanang by the Cabinet Cluster on national security. Chaired by Lorenzana, the meeting was precisely convened to take up this Recto Bank incident on orders of President Duterte.

Thus, it was only last Monday when President Duterte commented on the incident at the anniversary of the Philippine Navy held in Sangley, Cavite. The President echoed the findings of the Cabinet Cluster it was a “maritime accident” that should not escalate into a full- blown war with China.

Naturally, Insignea and his fellow Gem-Ver fishermen deplored what seemed to them were unsympathetic statements from the President and the entire Philippine government.

But after they were able to talk directly with Piñol, Insignea sort of changed tunes. He now believes it was really just an accident. But Insignea demanded justice be done against his Chinese counterpart skipper for sailing away and leaving them at the mercy of the sea.

At the end of their talks, the 22 fishermen received 11 new fiberglass-made fishing bancas from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). The BFAR is one of the DA attached agencies.

The 30-footer fishing boats are equipped with engine and nets, and complete accessories like life vests. Two fishermen will share the fishing boats while their damaged wooden-hulled fishing vessel Gem-Ver is undergoing repair. In addition, all 22 Gem-Ver fishermen will get financial assistance to tide them over while recovering from their traumatic sea mishap.

Criticized for a tamer version of this sea accident, Lorenzana retorted: “I think we can change our mind if new facts will come in.”

Lorenzana described it as plain “stupidity” if anyone would not accept the new facts as they unfold.

Now, the poor fishermen are the ones being accused of changing their narratives into a fishy story after receiving “bribe.” Correction, it was government assistance.

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