Tactic or knee-jerk? Duterte’s insults vs probers
MANILA, Philippines—In many instances, President Rodrigo Duterte’s response to allegations of irregularities, abuse or corruption thrown at his feet showed an uncanny pattern—curse or insult the accuser or critic but fail to address the accusation squarely using facts.
While his sycophants would say it’s just how Duterte is, observers in the academe and other critics said it showed an aberration.
Are these responses just knee-jerk reactions or part of a well-thought of strategy?
“It’s a tactic to distract and confuse,” said John Molo, University of the Philippines constitutional law professor.
Molo told INQUIRER.net that resorting to “personal attacks to diminish a target” is a tactic which Duterte had mastered.
Edre Olalia, National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) president, said Duterte’s expletives create a “mirage brought by the notion that maybe the best defense is a strong offense.”
This pattern of behavior was in full view when senators started peeling the layers of billion-peso disbursements for COVID-response which they said bore signs of corruption.
Duterte’s response was typical of his style. He said Senate investigations were a waste of time and that people should not give credence to these. They “lead to nothing,” Duterte said.
Senators at the helm of the investigations—Panfilo Lacson and Richard Gordon—pushed back, saying the President seemed to have forgotten about separation of powers.
Duterte’s pique went center stage after the Senate started an investigation of how the Department of Health (DOH) spent hundreds of billions of funds on pandemic response, which are considered crucial and should not be lost to corruption.
Theodore Te, former Supreme Court spokesperson, said normal behavior for those familiar with criminal law was to present facts when confronted with accusations.
“Trial lawyers know that when facts are on your side, pound on the facts,” Te wrote on Twitter. “When the law is on your side, pound on the law.”
“When neither is on your side, pound on the table,” Te said.
“So what happens when the judges aren’t on your side—pound on the judges and call them names?” he asked.
Te named no one in his tweets but their timing came at the height of the tit-for-tat between senators and Duterte with Duterte threatening to bar his officials from testifying in Senate hearings.
It was a move reminiscent of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s policy to limit testimony of her Cabinet to only those she would approve.
Last Thursday (Sept. 2), Duterte asked Gordon if he was investigating in aid of legislation or “in aid of your political interest.” Gordon had repeatedly expressed interest in running for president in 2022.
Duterte also chose to turn the spending scandal into a dirt-throwing competition with Gordon.
In accusations that meant to show that Gordon can’t be holier-than-thou, Duterte cited the senator’s relationship with the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) as sample of Gordon’s lack of moral ascendancy.
“You used it in the elections. This has been your milking cow,” said Duterte about Gordon and PRC.
Since the start of his rule in 2016, Duterte has shown consistency in reacting to investigations and investigators.
“It seems like he is overdoing it,” said Molo, the constitutional law professor.
Last Tuesday (Aug. 31), Duterte made public his irritation at the Senate investigation of how COVID funds are being spent, calling these “all talk.”
Duterte said senators were using the investigation for political mileage.
“They’re all talk. They just want to be prominent because it’s election already,” said Duterte.
“That is why I ask the people, don’t reelect these senators because they will just keep on talking and showing off,” he said.
Duterte’s rant came after Gordon, on Aug. 30, was quoted as saying that the investigation into the use of COVID funds, like billions of pesos spent on PPE sets that were more expensive than average prices, could reach the President.
The investigation is uncovering details that seem to bring the controversy closer and closer to Duterte.
Among these was a video showing former economic adviser Michael Yang, a businessman from Duterte hometown Davao City, meeting Duterte. Yang has been linked to Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., a company with less than P1 million in capital that bagged P8.7 billion in contracts to supply PPEs to the government.
Continuing his rant, Duterte likened Gordon to a “German interrogator” from the Nazi regime, citing Gordon’s seven-hour grilling of a key figure in the PPE spending scandal—Davao lawyer Christopher Lao, former budget undersecretary.
Duterte escalated the personal attack on Gordon, saying the senator should lose weight because “you’re kind of different.” “I feel dizzy by looking at you,” Duterte said.
Gordon said he felt dismayed by Duterte’s decision to resort to personal insults instead of calling out the officials being linked to the spending scandal.
Lacson, who had declared he was running for president in 2022, was not spared from Duterte’s personal attacks. “All of you, including Ping. You have a different hairdo,” Duterte had said.
Last. Aug. 27, following the President’s tirades against the Senate, Lacson said officials being investigated for allegations of corruption don’t end up facing legal cases because there’s a President who defends them.
He also said Duterte should read the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government “before he interferes with the Senate.”
Recently, Lacson said Duterte is in “panic mode” and trying to discourage the Senate investigation of COVID spending “that is starting to knock on the doors of Malacañang.”
This year, when the Commission on Audit (COA) called out several government offices, especially the DOH, for deficiencies in spending of funds, Duterte ordered the offices to ignore COA.
“Do not follow COA. Son of a b*tch. Nothing will happen there,” Duterte said.
“That’s what I hate about flagging,” the President said.
“It creates a conundrum and you know that it’s political season. Everyone has tirades, everyone has criticisms. These newspapers act as if they are the epitome of propriety and decency,” Duterte added.
The President said COA should not publish its reports until government offices complete their work.
“You make a report. Do not flag and do not publish it because it will condemn the agency or the person that you are flagging,” Duterte said.
“The flagging is spelled flagged. What you are doing is flogging. Do not just flag. And then no one gets jailed, nothing happens. And yet you know that when you flag, there is already a taint of corruption by perception,” he said.
On July 30, 2018, Malacañang fired Overall Deputy Ombudsman Arthur Carandang for graft and corruption and betrayal of public trust.
This followed complaints filed against Carandang over the disclosures he made about the alleged ill-gotten wealth of the President and the first family.
“He was clearly only interested to broadcast an information adverse to the President,” the order to fire Carandang read. “His keeping mum about an information that was favorable to the President clearly amounted to manifest partiality,” the order said.
On Sept. 12, 2017 Carandang’s office approved the request of Mindanao’s Deputy Ombudsman Rodolfo Elman to obtain the Anti-Money Laundering Council final report on bank transactions when Duterte was still Davao City mayor.
Duterte said the laundering allegations against him were “fabricated and the evidence illegally obtained” by the deputy ombudsman. On Oct. 23, 2017, two cases were filed in Malacañang against Carandang and Elman.
On Jan. 29, 2018, Malacanang suspended Carandang for 90 days for grave misconduct and several administrative offenses after he disclosed Duterte’s alleged bank records.
However, then Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales said she would not enforce what she called a “patently unconstitutional” action and a “clear affront” to her office.
In a 2014 decision, the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional Section 8 (2) of the Ombudsman law, which previously gave the President the power to discipline a deputy ombudsman.
‘The black, the skinny’
On March 7, 2018, Duterte insulted United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Agnes Callamard and then International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda for looking into allegations of widespread human rights violations in the Philippines.
“They can pursue it (investigation), but if we meet along the way now, especially their lawyers, the black one and the other one who is skinny, does not eat,” Duterte said, referring to Bensouda and Callamard.
On Feb. 8, 2018 Bensouda said the ICC will begin a preliminary examination of the Philippines’ human rights record following a “careful, independent, and impartial review of a number of communication and reports.”
In 2017, Callamard was condemned by Malacañang for coming to the Philippines “uninvited” while negotiations had not concluded on the invitation required for special rapporteurs to investigate in UN member states.
Responding to the President’s tirades, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that Duterte’s attacks on rights officials are “unacceptable” and “cannot go unanswered.”
Malacañang later moved to leave the ICC. On March 17, 2019, the country’s withdrawal took effect. However, the ICC said it will pursue its examination of possible crimes in the government’s war on drugs.
On Aug. 17, 2016, a week before the start of a Senate inquiry into cases of extrajudicial killings related to the campaign against drugs, Duterte launched a barrage of personal attacks against Sen. Leila de Lima, who has been in jail since Feb. 24, 2017.
Duterte said De Lima was involved with a “driver and lover” and took “drug money” from syndicates at the New Bilibid Prisons (NBP).
“Here is an immoral woman,” said Duterte. “Here is a woman who financed the house of her lover. That money came readily from drugs,” he said.
“The intercept between Muntinlupa and the driver was far beyond making sure that somebody was involved,” he said.
De Lima condemned Duterte’s tirades as “foul” but despite the attacks, she said she would not back down from the investigation into the killings.
On July 13, 2016, De Lima filed a Senate resolution to investigate the spate of drug-related killings in the Philippines. The government later released a matrix of individuals involved in the illegal drug trade inside the NBP. De Lima was prominent in the document.
When she was arrested in 2017 over what she described as “fabricated” cases, she said that “the truth will come out and I will achieve justice. I am innocent.”
‘No longer working’
While Duterte has been relentless in his attacks, public accountability is being relegated to the background, according to Olalia. “It does not work that way in the end,” he said.
“Fallacious arguments and diversionary low blows do not wipe off serious allegations. The issues remain outstanding and uncontroverted despite deflections and digressions,” he told INQUIRER.net.
“The public and the nation deserve responsive explanations, not wagging of the dog,” he added.
For Molo, people are not going to be distracted from billions of pesos of “misused” resources because of the President’s tirades: “People want answers.”
He said there are times one would wonder if Duterte himself is getting confused.
“The number of admissions he has been making for instance, it’s not that he is doing [Francisco] Duque or Lao any favors. He’s pressing them,” he said.
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