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Getting the real story out in the Philippines

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The Philippine defense secretary said it, and many major papers and news agencies ran with it.

China, the cabinet official said, had pulled its coast guard vessels out of Scarborough Shoal, a chain of reefs in the South China Sea that’s at the center of a territorial dispute between Manila and Beijing. It appeared an astonishing diplomatic victory for new President Rodrigo Duterte just days after he visited China.

To Jim Gomez, AP’s chief correspondent in Manila, it all seemed a bit too remarkable _ and he pushed officials to back up their claim. Within days, they clarified: Chinese vessels had not left the disputed reef, but had allowed in Filipino fishermen who had been denied access for years.

The story resulting from Gomez’ persistent questioning debunked a key government claim and earns the Beat of the Week.

When Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, citing the Philippine coast guard, told reporters last week that Chinese coast guard and navy ships had pulled out of area, it was a bombshell for the region and made headlines.

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Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures as he answers questions from reporters during a press conference at Camp Aguinaldo military headquarters in suburban Quezon city, north of Manila, Philippines Friday, Oct. 7, 2016. – AP Photo / Aaron Favila

Duterte assumed office in June and since then has set in motion a dramatic reorientation of the Philippines’ foreign relations, turning away from its traditional alignment with the U.S. and instead moving closer to regional power China in spite of a long-simmering territorial dispute with Beijing. Since 2012, Chinese coast guard vessels had driven Filipino fishermen away from the Scarborough Shoal, about 123 nautical miles (228 kilometers) from the northern Philippines. After a recent China trip, however, Duterte announced that Filipinos may be able to return to the shoal soon.

When Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, citing the Philippine coast guard, told reporters last week that Chinese coast guard and navy ships had pulled out of area, it was a bombshell for the region and made headlines.

Gomez was skeptical. He wondered how the Philippine coast guard would know that the Chinese had pulled out of seas that the Philippines was not patrolling.

Around noon on Sunday, the defense chief sent a cellphone message exclusively to the AP with the result of the surveillance flight. That’s when Gomez broke the real story: Chinese forces had not left.

In a subsequent news conference, presidential spokesman Ernie Abella stated “it has been observed” that the Chinese coast guard was no longer at the shoal; but he did not say who was doing the observing. Gomez pressed the defense secretary,who responded by saying it needed to be verified,and that he had ordered a surveillance flight over the shoal Saturday.

Gomez reported that story Friday,and kept in touch with the defense secretary in the next two days to ensure AP would get the first word on the surveillance flight’s outcome.

Around noon on Sunday,the defense chief sent a cellphone message exclusively to the AP with the result of the surveillance flight. That’s when Gomez broke the real story: Chinese forces had not left. A surveillance plane spotted at least four coast guard ships, though they were allowing Filipino boats to fish in the area for the first time since 2012. https://yhoo.it/2fh5Me2

Many of the news outlets that reported the defense secretary’s original,erroneous claim had to back away and used Gomez’ story.

For aggressive reporting that corrected the record on an important foreign policy dispute for the Pacific region, Gomez wins this week’s $500 Beat of the Week prize.

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