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Panelo: You have no right to look for the President. Leni’s camp: Get over it

By Tanya Lara Published Nov 20, 2020 6:11 pm Updated Nov 20, 2020 7:00 pm

In interviews with PhilSTAR L!fe, Salvador Panelo blasted anew Vice President Leni Robredo, while the VP’s spokesperson Barry Gutierrez said Secretaries Panelo and Harry Roque are fixating on the wrong things when “there’s so much work to do after the typhoon.”

The morning after President Rodrigo Duterte made accusations and insinuations against Vice President Leni Robredo in his address to the nation on Nov. 16, Twitter once again lit up with competing hashtags. By Twitter’s account #NasaanAngPangulo, #DuterteMeltdown, #NasaPusoAngPangulo were used in more than 70,000 tweets.

The first hashtag began trending this month on Nov. 1, Sunday, when the first of two typhoons hit the country in a span of 11 days.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the president was in Davao to pay his respects to his parents in the cemetery on Nov. 1.

Presidential Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo

Duterte lashed out at critics the next day, saying “Itong mga ugok naman sinasabing wala ako, I was just waiting for the typhoon to pass. Kung wala kayong patay, okay lang. Kaming mayroon, kailangan umuwi kami doon sa amin.”

The government had actually banned such visits to cemeteries, ordering them to be closed from Oct. 29 to Nov. 4, and preventing ordinary people from honoring their dead on the traditional day of undas.

Then the country was hit yet again by another typhoon on Nov. 11.

Presidential Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo: Freedom of speech is free but subject to restrictions. Meron tayong libel laws, may grave oral defamation.

In his late-night address on Nov, 17, Duterte spent the first 20 minutes attacking Vice President Robredo for allegedly using the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo, saying she knew that he was attending the virtual ASEAN Summit meeting at Malacañang Palace when Typhoon Ulysses hit. He also made insinuations about the vice president’s personal life, among other falsehoods.

Robredo accused Panelo, the president’s chief legal counsel, of spreading “fake news” about her riding a government C-130 plane to bring relief goods to typhoon victims in Catanduanes.

Panelo made this claim on his PTV talk show on Nov. 16, saying, “Sumabay ka doon sa mga relief goods. O, ‘di parang ikaw ang may dala noon.” 

Panelo apologized on Nov. 18 “for expressing an opinion relative to an information, which happened to be inaccurate” on ANC. 

‘Tulog pa rin?’

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said these tweets about someone sleeping through the typhoon pertained to Duterte.

However, in a phone interview with PhilSTAR L!fe after he apologized on TV, Panelo criticized the vice president anew—this time over the use of the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo, which Robredo had already denied.

“They’re using that hashtag—especially the spokesperson of VP Leni—and since she’s the spokesperson she binds the principal, and the principal has not disputed the statement of her spokesperson. So it goes without saying that is the position of VP Leni,” Panelo said.

In using the pronoun “she,” Panelo must have been referring to the VP’s daughters because the official spokesperson is Barry Gutierrez.

Tricia Robredo had tweeted during Typhoon Rolly, “Tulog pa rin?” To which Aika Robredo responded, “Sabado eh. Weekend.”

Neither girl named Duterte as the sleeping subject of the tweet nor used the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo.

In an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe, Robredo’s spokesperson Barry Gutierrez reacted to Panelo’s claims.

“Unang-una, bakit umabot na sa ganoong point itong fixation nila sa hashtag? There’s still a lot of work to be done with respect to rebuilding after the typhoon, which cost over P1.5 billion in damage with 70 people dead, 300,000 people displaced,” Gutierrez said.

President Duterte said he was in Davao to visit the cemetery for undas, which the government had banned, when Typhoon Rolly hit on Nov. 1 and was in Malacañang when Ulysses hit on Nov. 11.

“For the last three days, this administration—including Secretary Panelo, Secretary Roque—has been fixating on a hashtag. They can search my timeline, the timelines of VP Leni’s daughters although to be honest I find the whole exercise absurd.

“That hashtag has never been used either by myself or the VP. How hard is to accept na mali sila—and then just focus on the work that needs to be done, which to begin was what a lot of people apparently wanted. They wanted to see the government moving expeditiously and promptly on a matter of national concern.”

Yesterday, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque during his virtual media briefing presented a snapshot of the Robredo sisters’ exchange on Twitter, screenshot nine hours after they posted “Tulog pa ba?” Roque said the tweets pertained to the president.

Robredo with her daughters in 2017. 

Robredo wrote on Facebook last night, “Ngayon, ang binubully mga anak ko. I have always been proud of the persons my daughters have become. They’re outspoken and rightfully so. We have trained them to stand up for themselves and what they believe in.”

The right to criticize, look for our leaders

Government relief efforts in Cagayan Valley

When PhilSTAR L!fe asked Panelo if ordinary citizens were within their rights to use the hashtag and look for their leaders in times of crisis, he said, “Yung mga hindi nakaka alam kung nasaan siya okay lang magtanong, pero yung mga nakaka-alam like the VP wala silang karapatan magtanong, nang-aasar lang sila. When you ask ‘Where are you?’nangangantiyaw ka eh.” (Robredo had already debunked this claim by the time of our interview with Panelo.)

“Dapat ang hashtag is not ‘Where’s the President,’ dapat ‘How is the President? Is he well?’ Kasi he’s supposed to be the head of state, you’re supposed to be concerned about his health, security, safety.”

When we pointed out that people stranded on the roof during a raging flood don’t have the luxury to think about how the president is doing, Panelo replied, “But you’re missing the point. If you make a hashtag, kailangan yung batay sa realidad. Eh yung sinasabi mong nandoon ka sa roof, di naman sila yung nagtatanong ‘Nasaan ang Presidente?’ Ang tanong nila, ‘Nasaan ang saklolo namin?’ Eh andiyan naman.”

People on their rooftops await rescue in Cagayan.

Gutierrez disagreed. “Parang nasa Twilight Zone na tayo eh. They should get a grip, get some perspective and get back to work. Nobody expects the president na siya ang susulong sa baha, but people expect to know what the president is doing. Ideally he or some other official goes on national TV, radio or social media to say, ‘Wag kayong mag alala. Kung nasaan man kayo, we will get to you.’”

He said that what spurred Robredo to fly to Cagayan and other typhoon-hit areas was that people had reached out to her. “The fact na hindi alam ng mga tao ang nangyayari, that even media was looking at VP Leni’s social media platforms for updates on Cagayan shows how bad the situation was, how poorly critical information was being (disseminated) to people.”

Palace Comms Office has a budget of P4.6 million a day

Gutierrez said that the government has no shortage of communication machinery “pero for the past few days wala kayong nakita kung di blasts ng mga trolls kay VP Leni. Ang dami nilang kwentong pina-palabas na copy paste pa.”

For context, the Presidential Communications Office Operations (PCOO), headed by Secretary Martin Andanar, has a budget of P1.69 billion a year or P4.6 million a day in 2020. (In comparison, the budget of PCOO in 2016, the last year of the previous administration, was P1.24 billion, according to the Department of Budget and Management.)

PCOO has a budget of P1.698 billion a year—to communicate relevant government information to Filipinos.

In September 2019, after Congress approved PCOO’s 2020 budget, Andanar said in the government’s own news agency (PNA), that “government media will not only widen its audience reach but will also strengthen information campaigns to show the ‘gold standard’ of governance under the Duterte administration.”

Mass information by the government to warn people of the typhoon was heavily criticized last week, as it was in the aftermath.

OneNews reported, “From 12, to 14, to 26, and then 39—these were the varying numbers of deaths given by government officials following the onslaught of Typhoon Ulysses on Wednesday, Nov. 11. Within less than an hour on Friday, Nov. 13, the government’s top officials gave different death tolls from Ulysses during a Cabinet-level meeting of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).”

Just how free is our freedom of speech?

Does he see anything wrong with the Vice President distributing relief goods? “No, in fact in my program I always laud her for that. But the problem with VP Leni is while she’s distributing relief goods, marami siyang pasaring sa administration. Marami siyang puna. Parang pinapalabas niya siya lang ang nagtratrabaho at inutil ang administrasyon ni Duterte. But how can she compete with the resources of the government?”

(A look at the tweets of the Vice President—a position that is part of the government and is second highest—about the distribution of relief goods reveals that they are about barangays and their situation.)

Robredo’s spokesperson Barry Gutierrez: For the past few days wala kayong nakita kung di blasts ng mga trolls kay VP Leni. Ang dami nilang kwentong pina-palabas na copy paste pa.

Asked whether the president and his followers have “balat sibuyas,” and if he thinks Filipinos have the right to criticize the president, Panelo answered, “Everyone has the right to criticize, but the subject of criticism has the right to respond. When the president responds, anong mali doon?”

What about Elanel Egot Ordidor, an OFW in Taiwan, whom the government wanted to be deported for criticizing Duterte and government on social media for their pandemic response?

On April 25, 2020, DOLE released a statement saying the department was “constrained to act for the deportation of a Filipina working as caregiver in Taiwan for the crime of cyber libel for willful posting of nasty and malevolent materials against President Duterte on Facebook intended to cause hatred…”

Two days later, Taiwan Times reported, “Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) rebuffed the request by saying that ‘foreign workers enjoy citizen treatment, and their rights and interests are protected by relevant laws and regulations, including freedom of speech.’”

The government wanted Taiwan to deport an OFW for criticizing Duterte’s pandemic response in April. Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said foreign workers enjoy freedom of speech. 

When pressed about whether the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo is violating cyber law, Panelo asked me, “Abogado ka ba?” (I’m a journalist.)

He continued, “Depende nga sa criticism. Freedom of speech is free but subject to restrictions. Meron tayong libel laws, may grave oral defamation.”

For now, netizens are continuing to use hashtags to signify their emotions and political leanings.

And when a misspelled one also trends—like #NasaPusodAngPangulo—it can provide a little levity to the cesspool of vitriol and hate online.