Commercial ship captain Manolo “Noli” Ebora felt bothered by the recent wave of disinformation that said President Rodrigo Duterte supposedly praised and saluted him for his bravery in standing up to a Chinese government vessel at Scarborough Shoal.
For one thing, the incident happened nearly two years ago, and Duterte did not commend or even acknowledge him then. In fact, the Palace frowned upon him, insinuating that he put himself and his ship in trouble’s way to provoke the Chinese.
For another, it unsettled him to learn that a disinformation machinery was using him and his story in the wrong context, evidently to buttress Duterte’s image as a brave, patriotic leader.
“Hindi katanggap-tanggap kasi hindi naman actually ako sinaluduhan ng national government,” Ebora told Rappler. “Nakakalungkot na nakakainis. Hindi ko masabi eh, pero parang maling-mali na ginagamit ako.”
(It’s unacceptable because the national government never actually saluted me. It’s annoyingly sad. I don’t know how to put it, but it seems very wrong that I’m being used.)
From May 1 to 4, at least a dozen separate YouTube accounts published videos rehashing news reports that featured footage of Ebora confronting the Chinese intruders and interviews of him talking about the encounter.
In November 2019, Rappler exclusively broke the news of Ebora insisting on his vessel’s right of innocent passage through Scarborough Shoal, showing to the world the extent of China’s belligerence in defying international law, and inspiring Filipinos by his display of courage. Other news outlets picked up the story, too.
The new YouTube videos took splices of the reports from 2019, juxtaposed them with photos of Duterte – one had him in military salute – and bore headlines that were variations of “Duterte, bumilib kay Captain Ebora na binalaan ang Chinese coast guard (Duterte impressed with Captain Ebora who warned the Chinese coast guard).”
The similarity of the narratives and synchronicity of the release of these videos point to a concerted effort among the owners of these YouTube accounts, whose earlier posts similarly construed current events in favor of Duterte, to sensational effect.
The real news headlines at the time included the swarm of alleged Chinese militia vessels that began at the Julian Felipe Reef in March, and that spread to other parts of the West Philippine Sea later on.
By April, in the weeks leading to the release of the spurious videos, the country watched the back-and-forth of diplomatic protests, rebuffs, and even profanities between the Philippine defense and foreign departments on one side, and the Chinese embassy and foreign ministry on the other.
All the while, Duterte had been silent on the matter, and his critics like retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio and former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario urged him to openly condemn China’s incursions into Philippine waters.
When Duterte did speak out on April 19, he merely repeated his claim that calling out and condemning China would only lead to war, and said he would only take strong action in case the Chinese started drilling the seabed for oil.
The President went on to say China was already “in possession” of the West Philippine Sea.
The fake news videos did not change anything in Ebora’s story. The contents of the spliced news reports were unaltered. The makers let the voices of the captain and the original reporters narrate how, on September 30, 2019, he challenged a vessel that introduced itself as a “Chinese naval warship” as he tried to escape rough seas by sailing near Scarborough Shoal.
But the makers cropped out the date stamped on the original reports, and to anyone who might not have been paying attention to the news in late 2019, the story could have seemed new – “breaking news,” as the pages were labeled.
The superimposition of Duterte’s photo and the patently false headline of him saluting Ebora for his courage laid a trap for the gullible: By association, the commercial ship captain’s brave stand appeared to be the President’s, too.
Although the videos collectively gained hundreds of thousands of views, the intent to mislead was obvious to at least a few viewers.
“’Wag kayong bumilib diyan kay Digong, palusot lang ’yan,” commented user Ban Ereno. (Don’t be fooled by Digong, that’s just an excuse.)
“Bakit isinali mo picture ni Duterte, Ryan?” asked user Jundags Dagacay, apparently addressing the video’s maker. (Why did you include Duterte’s picture?)
“Matagal na ’yan. ’Yung bago ang ibalita mo,” added user Baloy J. (That’s old. Report what’s new.)
Many of the other comments across all the videos lauded Ebora, not Duterte.
“Nakakatuwa rin naman kasi mas marami ang pumupuri at sumasaludo na mga Pilipino,” said Ebora. (It’s heartening, too, because there are more Filipinos giving praise and salutations.)
Shortly after the bogus YouTube videos surfaced, Ebora spoke to his followers on his Facebook page to distance himself from the fakery.
Ebora knew those videos were, in a way, a form of vindication for him – Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s spokesperson in 2019, said Ebora’s encounter with the Chinese was unnecessary and troublesome.
That internet trolls would now want Duterte to be associated with Ebora affirms the justice of the seaman’s cause. Malacañang had been so quick to disavow him; now, the machinery was using him to save face.
Ebora was not in the least bit flattered.
“Hindi ko alam kung sino sila, pero hindi rin tama para sa akin kasi mali ’yung binabalita nila, kung sino man sila,” Ebora said of the fake videos’ makers. (I don’t know who they are, but for me, it’s still not right because what they’re spreading is false, whoever they are.)
Although he did not expect to be criticized by the government for standing up for the country, Ebora said he never sought to earn praise for his actions, either.
“Ayaw kong magamit sa maling paraan kasi totoo naman akong tao…. Hindi naman ako gumagamit ng ibang tao para lang makilala ako,” he said. (I hate to be used in the wrong way because I’m real as a person… I don’t use other people just to become famous.)
Ebora has paid a steep price for the measure of fame he gained from the episode at Scarborough Shoal.
When he came home in October 2019, about a month since the encounter with the Chinese vessels, he had just ended a contract with the Greek company that owned the oil tanker he was helming, the Green Aura.
After his story made the headlines, he faced questions from his employers, who weren’t happy that their ship figured in a run-in with Chinese government vessels and, worse, that Ebora made it public.
The company wanted him to retract his story – that he was insisting on innocent passage, that the Chinese denied him access, that they told him the reef was Chinese territory, and that he told them they were very wrong, because an arbitral award said they were in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
Ebora refused to recant, so his employers did not renew his contract. His name became a buzzword among navigation circles, which saw his actions as plain adventurism.
Virtually blacklisted, Ebora was left jobless. He knew it could happen, he said, even while he was facing off with the Chinese vessel.
“Di sana hindi na lang ako nagsalita, tumahimik na lang ako. Pero nanaig sa akin ’yung pagiging Pilipino ko. Nanaig sa puso ko na hindi naman puwede tayong apak-apakan lang ng ibang lahi,” he said.
(Then I should have shut up and kept quiet. But my being Filipino got the better of me. It came over my heart that we can’t just be trampled upon by foreigners.)
In May 2020, Ebora got a return call on his application with another Greek maritime company. He passed all the initial screenings and was scheduled for a final interview. Then, for some reason, his interview was canceled and the company never got back to him.
“Tinanong ko, pero hindi ko na pinilit alamin kung bakit. Pero siyempre naramdaman ko na maaaring nakatunog ’yung company, ’yung principal, doon sa nangyari sa akin.”
(I asked, but I didn’t persist in finding out why. But, of course, I felt that the company, the principal, might have heard about what happened to me.)
Soon after that, he tried for another job and he made it, but by then the COVID-19 pandemic had spooked the global maritime industry. The contract did not push through.
Then, in July 2020, a commercial ship that was docked locally came under new management and needed a new crew. The company approached Ebora, and by the end of that month he was back at the helm as ship captain.
Despite his struggle to land a new job, Ebora didn’t think twice when he again found himself sailing through the West Philippine Sea in bad weather, and the safest route was through the channel near Scarborough Shoal.
The night of December 5, 2020, was blustery, and, as the ship approached the area of the reef, a familiar-sounding Chinese voice called on the radio. It demanded that Ebora’s vessel take a different route.
“We are passing innocently and we are using freedom of navigation in this area. Is this Chinese territory, may I know?” Ebora responded to the voice. As before, he had one of his men take a video of the exchange.
The voice from a China Coast Guard ship wanted Ebora to skirt around the reef's 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. He was triggered – how dare they shoo the ship away as though the place were their territory.
“It’s my discretion. I am the captain. We are safe here, it is good – the [reef]. We are covered from the bad weather, for the safety of the vessel,” Ebora told the voice on the line.
“It belongs to China,” the voice on the radio insisted.
“This island does not belong to China. It belongs to the Philippines because we won the UN arbitral ruling [in] 2016,” Ebora declared.
The arbitral tribunal based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled that, pending a resolution of sovereignty disputes, Scarborough Shoal is a common fishing ground, and it lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone as it doesn’t generate one itself. On that basis, China has no right to claim the reef as its own, or to drive vessels away from it.
“We are Filipinos and we want to pass this area safely,” Ebora told the Chinese coast guards.
All the ship’s 24 crew members were Filipinos, and they were right behind Ebora as he again declared to the Chinese vessels that they did not own Scarborough Shoal, and, unlike them, Filipinos have a legally binding document based on international law to back them up.
“Nakakataba ng puso na para bang, ‘Hindi ‘nyo kaya kaming mga Pilipino,’” he said. (It feels good inside, as if to say, “You can't mess with us Filipinos.”)
“Kung sa Batangas ba, ‘Hoy! Ay, huwag mo akong gagay-an gay-anin! Ay, kaming mga Batangueño ay hindi agad nasuko, basta kami ay nalaban!’” Ebora said in his thick Batangueño punto (accent).
(In Batangas, we say, “Hey! Don’t you dare treat us like that. We Batangueños don’t give up easily, we put up a fight!")
As a boy, Ebora loved reading historical epics. He idolized Alexander the Great, Andres Bonifacio, and fellow Batangueño Miguel Malvar. At school, he stood in the way of bullies to defend his gentler classmates.
He likes being the hero and doesn’t apologize for it.
At his graduation ring hop ceremony at the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy in 1986, he was going to drop his batch ring into the jar for military service, but sensing his intention, his mother nudged him to put it in the other jar instead – the one for a career in commercial shipping.
The dutiful son still found a way to fulfill his dream of joining the military by training as a reservist for the Philippine Navy. He holds the rank of lieutenant commander.
Because of the patriotism Ebora displayed at Scarborough Shoal, the Navy Reserve Command under then-Brigadier General Ariel Caculitan (now a major general and commandant of the Philippine Marine Corps) gave him verbal recognition in January 2020.
He was also ranked among the first line of reservists – the first to be called into active service in case of war.
He doesn’t agree with Duterte that standing up to China would necessarily lead to war, but if that’s what it takes to uphold the country’s dignity, Ebora says, so be it.
“Siyempre huling scenario ’yon, pero hanggang giyera, puwede ako.” (Of course, that’s the worst-case scenario, but even up to war, I'm available.)
Ebora is currently waiting to start another contract with a ship, and he wants to get onboard soon so that he can come home in time for the May 2022 elections.
“Bilang botante, mapipili ko ’yung mga nararapat at ’yung mga tao na may paninindigan para sa bayan, ang taong nagmamahal sa bayan.” (As a voter, I can choose people who are deserving and who are making a stand for the country, the people who love the country.)
Ebora knows that by consistently standing up to Chinese intruders, giving media interviews, and addressing internet trolls on political matters, he risks losing his maritime career for good.
So be it, he says.
“Kung hindi ako tanggapin nitong dati kong kumpanya, eh ’di okay lang. Kundi rin ako makaalis, ay ’di tayo’y gagawa ng paraan na mabuhay nang marangal. Marami namang paraan eh, para mabuhay,” Ebora said.
(If my former company drops me, then it’s okay. If I don’t get to leave [for work], then we’ll find a way to live honorably. There are many ways to earn a living.)
He talks openly about his disappointment with the current administration not because it spurned him, but because its subservience to China makes him feel abandoned and defeated as a Filipino.
“Sa isang barko kasi, kailangan may kapitan.” (A ship needs a captain.)– Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.