THOSE who support President Duterte have reason to be worried.
In three consecutive instances, he has been contradicted by his own spokesman. And this is not good.
After the President declared that he would order the military to take over the operations of the Bureau of Customs (BoC), and that he would put on floating status all of the bureau’s officials who will be required to report directly to him, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, who also happens to be the presidential legal adviser said that was not the case. No military personnel will be appointed or designated to perform official functions in the BoC; they will just assist regular personnel. This was affirmed by the newly appointed Customs chief Rey Leonardo Guerrero. Certainly, there is an ocean of difference between taking over and mere assisting. Panelo and Guerrero scrambled to correct the President’s declared intention simply because it was patently unconstitutional if pursued.
Several weeks ago, on October 9, President Duterte denied that he had appointed Michael Yang as his economic adviser. The President was even quoted as saying that Yang could not be appointed because he was a Chinese national. However, on November 5, Rappler revealed — based on a copy of two contracts which it said it had in its possession — that Yang, who used his Chinese name Yang Hong Ming, held an appointment as “Economic Adviser to the President” from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2018, but the contract had not been renewed for the period July 1 to Dec. 31, 2018.
It was easy enough for Duterte supporters to dismiss this last revelation as another attempt by Rappler to smear the President, except that Panelo came out the next day, November 6, and admitted that Yang indeed held such an appointment.
While the President is free to appoint any consultant of his choice, the issue of the legality of formally appointing a foreigner as his presidential economic adviser is pregnant with legal and national security implications. And what makes it even harder is the fact that the President initially denied that he had appointed Yang, only to be contradicted later by an admission from Panelo. But what has added to the problem of Malacañang is that it would seem that Panelo had no idea about the real nature of Yang’s appointment. The spokesman initially stated that Yang was only a personal consultant of the President, and did not hold the title of presidential economic adviser.
On November 5, during the formal opening of the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange, President Duterte raised the right hand of and urged voters to support senatorial candidate Freddie Aguilar. The event was clearly caught on tape and aired in mainstream media and livestreamed in social media. But the day after, November 6, in a press conference, Panelo once again contradicted the President and denied that the latter had endorsed the folk singer. He said the President “was only expressing his opinion on the qualification of the person.”
However, Panelo appears to have backtracked later, this time contradicting not the President but himself. He said that “… contrary to news reports, the Palace did not retract the President’s expression of support for Mr. Freddie Aguilar.”
An expression of support for a candidate, more so when done with the raising of hands and the articulation of a plea for votes, amounts to an endorsement, whether it is done before or during the campaign period. After all, it doesn’t matter anymore because the Supreme Court already ruled and has excised premature campaigning out of the possible list of election violations.
But what is certainly disturbing here is the flip-flopping of Panelo. This has painted a very bad optics for the President and his spokesman who is also his legal counsel.
Supporters of the President welcomed as a blessing the advent of real-time livestreaming as something that would enable them to check the reportage of mainstream media. For a long time, TV networks had virtual monopoly of the story as told by their reporters and approved by their news desks. The transition from raw tapes to final cut was a decision made beyond the scrutiny of the public. Hence, it was easy for the real narrative to be truncated by reportorial and editorial bias. But with mobile technology and livestreaming, and as enabled by different social media platforms, ordinary citizens can now see not only raw tapes, but also live broadcasts of the event using handheld devices. Networks had no choice but to also now cover the President and his officials using their own live streams and upload these in their own social media platforms in real time.
But this technology also now makes it possible for the public to see for themselves the actual utterances made by political figures in their raw, unedited versions. Thus, the Filipino people saw and heard the President refer to a takeover by the military of the BoC, saw and heard him deny the appointment of Michael Yang as a presidential economic adviser, and saw him raise the right hand of, and heard him ask voters to vote for, Freddie Aguilar. The people also saw and heard how presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo contradicted what the President said, and worse, saw and heard him display his cluelessness about what is happening in the Palace.
The President is known for his spontaneity. He thrives on a communication style that sustained him when he was mayor of Davao — informal, conversational, personal. In these organic communication platforms, authenticity is not solely dictated by truth and factuality of claims, but more by sincerity and camaraderie. It is almost like a drinking spree in a sari-sari store on a street corner with friends, where what matters is the company, even if people are simply pulling each other’s legs by telling tall tales and green jokes.
But the President is now running an entire country, where the field is much wider, more complex, and more contentious. In Davao, he commanded near monopoly over the conversation. But in Malacañang his audience is now more divided; there are just so many people who are just waiting in the wings for him to make a mistake, and the moment he does they are ready to pounce on him. Every bit of inconsistency, and every untruth that he tells, will be used against him.
There are times that we can blame media bias for distorting the President’s message. But it is harder when the President is caught making raw, unvetted and legally infirm statements, or when he appears clueless, or worse, lying. And it is definitely hardest when such is validated not by the malice of a biased media, but by his own people telling the truth and correcting the mistake, or are caught spinning the lie.