No one has suggested that President Rodrigo Duterte’s courtship of the military is over, so when he failed for the first time in three years to attend the sixth turnover of command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines on Sept. 24, 2019, something serious must have happened to the President and Commander in Chief. Malacañang treated it as a casual matter, with presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo saying, the President’s “punishing schedule of official and social events the previous day affected his body temperature. He opted to rest so he can be in his usual healthy self in no time.”

The “punishing schedule” reportedly included attending the baptismal party of a congressman’s daughter and singing at the spokesman’s “surprise” birthday celebration the day before. Some presidential watchers noted that Mr. Duterte was last seen on Sept. 19, during the decommissioning of firearms and troops of a communist faction in Capiz. This was the last official function he attended before the scheduled turnover. 

Lt. Gen. Noel Clement, the incoming AFP chief of staff, and Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr., the outgoing, and the officers and men attending the turnover at AFP General Headquarters had to wait from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. before they were told the President and Commander in Chief was not coming and that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana would take his place.  Strictly speaking, the Secretary, who is a civilian official, is not supposed to be part of the military chain of command. But this was not merely a matter of protocol.

It is not known what effect this “no show” on the part of  the President and Commander in Chief has on the AFP officers and men. But within and outside the AFP it has triggered discomforting speculations about the President’s state of health and wellbeing. More and more people are asking about the real score. Early in his term, Mr. Duterte admitted having  various non-fatal ailments, including Barrett’s esophagus, Buerger’s disease, chronic bronchitis and severe migraine. 

But Panelo’s casual admission of Mr. Duterte’s temporary unwellness gives the public reason to be curious about his precise health condition. They demand more information. This is not easily satisfied by the spokesman’s light-hearted statement about the effect of Mr. Duterte’s “punishing schedule” on his body temperature. Was it just a simple rise in body temperature?  Given the kind of personal and professional ties Mr. Duterte has tried to cultivate with the military, it seems unthinkable he would risk missing the most important military event because of a simple fever.

He would have taken every precaution to make sure he would be there. Thus a medical bulletin issued by a competent medical authority would have gone a long way to calm public anxiety and end all speculations.  Instead we had Panelo’s statement; that is simply not sufficient. The health and well-being of the President is a fundamental public concern.  This is why the Constitution provides that in case of serious illness  of the President, the public shall be informed of the state of his health. The members of the Cabinet in charge of national security and foreign relations and the AFP chief of staff not be denied access to the President during his illness. 

Furthermore, in case he is unable to perform the duties of his office, he is commanded by law to inform the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives of his condition and hand over his duties to the Vice President.  If he is physically unable to inform the leaders of Congress, a majority of the members of the Cabinet may do so to enable the Vice President to discharge the powers and duties of his office.

In the last three years, presidential watchers have noted various periods when Mr. Duterte’s whereabouts remained unknown to the public. These elicited rumors of fainting spells, secret visits to a  healer, and unverified medical procedures. Upon his reappearance, he was photographed reading the previous day’s newspapers, having a chat with presidential companion Honeylet Avanceña or presidential factotum Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, now a senator. Accompanying the photo was the inane narrative saying the President had taken a few days off to catch up on his reading of state documents and watch Netflix.

The nation has survived three years of this without irreparable damage. But things may have changed after the Sept. 24 incident. Many of our military officers and men are reportedly now eager to know the state of the President’s health on a day-to-day basis. One presidential watcher sees the current situation as similar to the last days of President Marcos. This could be pure paranoia, but the best way to avoid such perception is to provide the public with accurate updates on the President’s state of health.

The mass media has the duty and the right to demand these data and to dig them up if the government withholds them from the public. This is not without its risks as this writer has recently found out, but either we have a free press or we don’t; either our constitutional democracy still exists, or it has long died.