Philippine President Aquino's office denies rumours that he 'collapsed'

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Has the uproar over the botched Mamasapano police operation gotten on Philippine President Benigno Aquino's nerves? Or have too many cigarettes and too much soda joined forces with pressure from handling the cares of state to bring his 55-year-old body down?

None of the above, if the president's office can be believed, but at any rate there it was: Mr Aquino "collapsed" around midnight on Friday - but he did not know.

He found out when his spokesman called to ask if it was true.

It was just a rumour, of course, but since it concerned the President's health, his office had to work overtime to assure the public that it was not true, and that Mr Aquino was in the pink of health.

A palace insider told the Inquirer on Saturday that the President was at Bahay Pangarap, his official residence on the grounds of the Malacañang Palace, when he learnt at around midnight that he had collapsed.

Earlier that night, the President had dinner with some of his Cabinet officials, the source said.

"He was so surprised when he learnt that there was a rumour that he had collapsed," the source, who requested anonymity, said.

The President was "fine" during the dinner, the source stressed.

Earlier on Friday, Mr Aquino was in Kawit, Cavite province, to inaugurate the new Emilio Aguinaldo museum.

The President led the flag-raising ceremony, but did not give a speech. He looked well as he walked in the museum's garden with other government officials.

Who started the rumour, which raised questions about the President's health anew, remains a mystery.

The rumour came amid calls for Mr Aquino's resignation or ouster following a bungled police counterterrorism operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, that left 44 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos dead on Jan 25 and sunk his administration in its deepest political crisis as he neared the end of his six-year term.

The rumour began with a tweet by a television reporter posted late on Friday night, citing an anonymous source who told him that the President had "collapsed".

In the same tweet, the reporter mentioned presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda's denial.

The tweet triggered a frenzy of reporters' phone calls to the Palace Communications Group trying to verify the information.

There were scant details. Nothing about where it happened, what time, who the President was with, why he collapsed.

At 12.20am, Mr Lacierda texted and posted a tweet: "I have communicated with the President regarding the rumours circulating that he collapsed and he immediately responded to my text that there is 'No such thing',"

He said he hoped his statement would "settle the issue tonight".

Mr Lacierda also asked the media to "disseminate the information accurately".

Speaking on state-run Radyo ng Bayan on Saturday, deputy presidential spokesman Abigail Valte said that "according to his physician", the President's "health is in good condition".

"We really don't know where these things come from," Ms Valte said, recalling that a few years ago a Cabinet official was also rumoured to have collapsed.

Ms Valte urged the public to be prudent when disseminating information, especially over social media.

"Let's just be careful about disseminating unverified information on social media, not just because it's the President, but about other equally important things as well," she said.

Even after his spokesmen had repeatedly denied it, Mr Aquino tried to meet the press on Saturday afternoon apparently to dispel the rumour, but cancelled it less than an hour after the Palace sent out an official advisory.

The advisory said the President would "visit NEB around 1.30pm to 2pm".

The NEB is the New Executive Building, which houses the Presidential Communications Operations Office and the press office. It is located on the Palace grounds.

Mr Aquino, the Inquirer source said, cancelled the visit after learning that most of the reporters were not in the press office, as it was their day off.

In a separate phone call, Mr Jo Paulo Espiritu, head of the Malacañang Media Accreditation and Relations Office, said Mr Aquino did not want to inconvenience the reporters, many of whom, he learnt, would have to rush to the Palace.

In the evening, the President was spotted with Bureau of Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares in a restaurant at Gateway Mall in Cubao, Quezon City, where a friend was celebrating his birthday.

Mr Aquino's health has been the subject of news reports since he began his term in June 2010.

Mr Aquino, a bachelor, has not denied being a heavy smoker. He also drinks a lot of soda.

He has been known as a nocturnal worker since his days in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.

Prone to coughing fits, which doctors attribute to his smoking, Mr Aquino also does not have a known exercise regimen.

It is that profile that stirs up a media frenzy whenever word comes that Mr Aquino is ill.

In 2012, for instance, Mr Aquino cancelled a meeting with International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde because he was ill.

He has also had bouts with cough and cold, and at times had to deal with pollen allergy attacks.

On Saturday, Ms Valte said the President regularly visits his personal physician.

In June last year, there was a question about whether Mr Aquino's medical record should be made public, following a series of cancellations of official functions because he had the flu or was down with pollen allergy.

The question came after the White House made public the medical record of US President Barack Obama. Mr Obama's doctors declared he was in excellent health.

At that time, Malacañang maintained that Mr Aquino had the privilege of keeping his medical record confidential.

Article VII, Section 12 of the Constitution states that the President's health requires public disclosure, especially if the illness is "serious".

"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 Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines shall not be denied access to the President during such illness," the Constitution says.