When journos celebrate Ambassador Lauro Baja Jr.

NEW BEGINNINGS - Büm D. Tenorio Jr. - The Philippine Star
When journos celebrate Ambassador Lauro Baja Jr.
The late Ambassador Lauro Baja Jr.

It was a beautiful friendship that I carved with other diplomatic reporters at the Department of Foreign Affairs when I covered it in 1997 to 1998.

We came from different newspapers yet we managed to thrive as a solid force at the DFA Press Room. In times when sources were tight-lipped about the pressing issue—say the country’s claim in Scarborough Shoal or the almost severed diplomatic ties between Kuala Lumpur and Manila during the presidency of Joseph Estrada and his personal stand about the issue between then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy Anwar Ibrahim or the raising of blood money for OFW John Aquino, who was incarcerated in UAE, or the capture of alleged Filipino fake healer Jun Dilem in Russia—we learned to scavenge in the garbage bin in search of carbon papers used by a certain department in typing the developing story. Many times, we found the story there, in the garbage can.

A “no comment” of an official is already a two-page story if we included the knowledge in our data base. Johnna Villaviray Giolagon (Manila Times), Malou Talosig (Today), Christine Avendano (Inquirer) Liberty Dones (Philippine STAR), Romy Morales (Journal) and I (Manila Standard that time) learned to follow the sources to the toilet cubicles to get a comment, a reaction from them. And if there were available seats on a toratora, some of us got to join in patrolling the Jackson Atoll for a few hours.

Of late, we have been talking about Ambassador Lauro Baja Jr., who passed away in February. A career diplomat, he served as the country’s ambassador to Brazil and Italy. At the Home Office, he served as assistant secretary for Asia-Pacific region and undersecretary for policy. He became the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.

But for us, diplomatic reporters, Ambassador Baja, who we still refer to as Usec Baja because he was an undersecretary when we covered him, was a good source for news articles. His no-nonsense one-liner was fodder for a three-page report.

I remember him fondly for the respect he accorded the press. Like a father, Usec Baja, gave me a 15-minute lecture on UNCLOS or the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea because, as a newbie at the diplomatic beat after covering police, investigative, education and human rights beats, I wanted to understand deeper the conflict at the South China Sea.

His death made us ruminate on the past. Here’s what my other contemporaries at the DFA beat have to say about Usec Baja, one of the brilliant minds and compassionate diplomat we have encountered in our journalism life.

Johnna Villaviray Giolagon

Usec Baja was among the first DFA officials to take me seriously. He didn’t dismiss me just because he didn’t know me. I was a very young journalist when I was assigned to the DFA press corps. I was youngest in a group of journos that have been specializing in the beat for years. This was pre-internet so there was no real way to easily research and study the beat except to go there day in and day out.

Usec Baja was among the few who spoke to me. He was assistant secretary for Aspac (Asia-Pacific region) at the time and was a key figure in discussions about how to handle China’s growing adventurism in the South China Sea. He would return my calls even when he was overseas attending this or that conference.

From him, I learned to read documents upside-down and flipped over. I learned to read between and beyond the lines in written text. I learned that even when you get nothing — as in no story, no quotes, no interviews — after hours of waiting, you still walk away with information sourced from elsewhere.

Liberty Dones Arand

Usec Baja was easily my favorite diplomat! He was down-to-earth, very accommodating, and respectful of us in the media. He was a deep well of knowledge but it wasn’t so much the amount of info that he let out that was endearing — although he was always insightful. It was his being cool and his willingness to be disturbed by insistent individuals that was most appreciated.

Christine Avendaño

Usec Baja had one of the most distinctive laugh I had ever heard and you know it was  because he was tickled pink over something he had verbalized himself or something told to him, although it was more of the former. As a senior career diplomat, he was unlike others who tended to be stern, less verbal and reticent. He was not afraid to engage the media…On the other hand, Usec Baja was more forthcoming whenever a small group of reporters and I would call on his office after work hours, sharing off-the -record details with us about pressing issues of the day, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. To reporters, he was a gold mine of information and it helped make the coverage easier when we knew and understood the issues behind it. I covered him when China started building structures in disputed areas in the South China Sea and from him we understood and appreciated the importance of diplomacy as we wrote about countless diplomatic protests and communiques that resulted from the dispute.

Romy Morales

As far as my recollection of Amba Baja, he was one of those easy to approach officials at the DFA. Always ready with asmile and never will you ever feel unwelcome to shoot him a question. He was a very friendly guy at the foreign office.

Malou Talosig Bartolome

This guy gave one of the best stories and quotes during my first years as a diplomatic reporter. I first encountered him during the Flor Contemplacion fiasco, kakatapos lang ng  first bilateral (meeting) with Singapore after the hanging of Flor Contemplacion. He was still Aspac Assec that time, pero nakwento na n’ya ‘yung tense atmosphere. Mabait s’ya kahit stupid ang questions ko or minsan exaggerated when I was a neophyte reporter. He stayed a few more years at the Home Office when he was promoted to Undersecretary for Policy, kaya endless WPS stories talaga — Mischief Reef, Scarborough Shoal, code of conduct, Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, etc. We lost touch when he was promoted as permanent representative to the UN, though we spoke briefly after his retirement because he was the only one who spoke openly regarding Duterte’s silence on arbitral award in West Philippine Sea (while others sulk in whispers). *

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