As Hidilyn’s gold shines, Panelo’s matrix wilts in the dark
The scene, in present day, seemed to play out in the case of Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz and chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo.
Weightlifter Hidilyn became the Philippines’ first Olympic gold winner after a 97-year drought and almost two years since Panelo presented hers and other names in a supposed matrix linking prominent individuals to an opaque plot to oust President Rodrigo Duterte.
As Hidilyn lifted the 127-kg barbell to set a world record last July 26 and win for her country its first ever Olympic gold, she might as well have lifted what could be the albatross that Panelo strung around her neck when Duterte’s chief legal counsel accused Hidilyn of involvement in the oust-Duterte plot.
It was both fulfillment of a dream that is as much the country’s as it was hers and a slap on the faces of those who apparently baselessly dragged her name into a crudely prepared matrix.
But Panelo continued to cradle his albatross just as Hidilyn raised the Philippines’ first gold medal to the applause of millions of Filipinos and even as she sang along teary eyed while saluting as the Philippine national anthem played for the first time in the Olympics.
In 2019, Panelo, as presidential spokesperson then who was often criticized for comments that were found to be falsehoods, presented at a televised press briefing several matrices that illustrated an alleged plot to overthrow the Duterte administration. Among the names in the matrices was Hidilyn’s, who by then was already preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Two years later, Panelo would insist that media got him wrong, saying the matrices were wrongly analyzed and it was the public that concluded erroneously that Hidilyn and another sports personality, Gretchen Ho, were involved in the plot.
Right after Diaz made “herstory” as the Philippines’ first Olympic gold winner in the 55-kilogram weightlifting category, millions of Filipinos sent her congratulations, including Malacañang—the source of the controversial Panelo matrices that made Hidilyn fear for her and her family’s life.
Messages of congratulations from Malacañang, especially Panelo, were not received well by most Filipinos, who demanded that aside from congratulating Hidilyn, Malacanang and Panelo should also apologize to the Philippines’ biggest sport hero so far.
Panelo said sorry but not for linking Hidilyn to the oust-Duterte plot but because Hidilyn misunderstood him. The pain and fear that hounded Hidilyn and her family for two years, Panelo said, were misplaced.
“Your pain is misplaced because that was not the intention. The message is, before you feel pain, take a look if your suspicion is right,” Panelo said in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel.
In 2016, Diaz made history as the first Filipino woman to win an Olympic silver medal after conquering the women’s 53 kilograms weightlifting competition at the Rio Olympics.
Three years later, she was giving her all to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It was in 2019 when she said that she was fifth on the list of Olympic qualifiers. It was also the year Panelo pulled the rabbit out of his hat, the oust-Duterte matrices that included Hidilyn, now a staff sergeant in the Philippine Air Force.
On April 22, 2019, the Palace, through Panelo, presented a matrix which listed the names of groups and media workers who, the government said, were involved in an alleged plot to “destroy the image of the President.”
Earlier, Duterte said “intelligence reports” have been fed to him by “foreign sources.” It wasn’t clear whether it’s Chinese sources. The matrix was published by a pro-Duterte newspaper on the day that Panelo presented it.
Panelo said the matrix was from the Office of the President, adding that there was basis to release it and that information it contained had been “properly validated.” He didn’t say if he was the source of the scoop by the pro-Duterte newspaper.
The following were named in the matrix as involved in the ouster plot against Duterte:
- Metro Balita, an online news site
- Peter Joemel Advincula aka Bikoy, who testified about the involvement of presidential relatives in drugs but later recanted
- Ellen Tordesillas, a columnist who writes pieces critical of Duterte
- Members of National Union of People’s Lawyers, a group of attorneys providing free legal assistance to indigent clients especially those abused by the government
- Staffers of Rappler, an online news site which had published reports critical of Duterte
- Staffers of Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, an independent group of investigative journalists
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said there was not enough basis to investigate those involved in the matrix.
On May 8, 2019, Malacañang released new matrices to elaborate its claim that groups and individuals were “conspiring” against the President.
The matrices presented by Panelo at the televised briefing were drawn on white cardboard paper, called cartolina, taped to a white board and accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation with the same drawings. Groups supposedly involved in the ouster plot had been named like Liberal Party, yellows, Magdalo and media outfits.
Panelo said the President has received intelligence information that revealed a “deliberate conspiracy between certain groups” to discredit the government.
When asked about the “intelligence source,” however, he said “he does not know.”
“He has many sources. Knowing him, as one who is an effective President, he would have validated every information he has received,” said Panelo in reply to reporters’ questions.
“It was shared to him, he validated it and he wants the public to know about it,” Panelo said of why it was urgent to present the matrices.
The following were also named in the matrix:
- Former interior secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II
- Former Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano
- Former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV
- Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay
- Former presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda
- Former Senator Bam Aquino
- Rodel Jayme, the owner and web developer of metrobalita.net
- Inday-Espina-Varona of National Union of Journalist of the Philippines
- Jose Maria Sison, exiled leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines
- Vera Files, an investigative journalism group
- National Union of Journalists of the Philippines
Diaz and Ho were included for their “constant online collaboration” with individuals allegedly behind Duterte’s ouster.
The following day, May 9, 2019, Hidilyn said she considered Panelo’s stunt as a threat to her life, saying she thought it was a joke at first. “But when I thought about it, I had fear as well,” she said. “Not because it is true, but I feared for me and my family’s security.”
A day later, May 10, 2019, Panelo said he will not apologize to Ho and Diaz, saying it was the fault of media outlets that got it wrong.
He said the matrices were focused on Jayme and his online activities that included who he was following on Facebook.
Two years later, Hidilyn would end the Philippines’ Olympic gold medal drought but Panelo refused to say sorry for what he said was an error that he did not commit.
For Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at the University of the Philippines, to apologize is the right thing to do, but with the regime’s record, government officials were not expected to be sincere when they say sorry.
“They are too proud to do that. They will simply try to reframe what they did before, try to twist facts like what Panelo is doing now, and blame others for the problems they caused,” she said.
Emphasizing that the individuals linked to the supposed ouster plot were tried by publicity, Atienza said there was no solid evidence and investigation held before the names were released to the public.
She said government lists, including Duterte’s controversial drug watch list, violate judicial processes and the basic rights of people.
“Having these lists invalidate efforts to improve the court and justice systems and processes,” said Atienza.
“At the same time, the lists already create an unfair atmosphere where those implicated are already publicly judged before cases are actually filed against them and before investigation has been done,” she said.
She said that the lists “unfairly judge the individuals and actually threaten their privacy and lives.”
“They can be severely attacked in face-to-face interactions and social media by supporters of the President, particularly trolls,” she said.
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