Should the media cover Panelo?

/ 06:07 AM August 20, 2019

He is the presidential spokesperson, even as he remains chief presidential legal counsel. But Secretary Salvador Panelo’s stock in trade, as principal explainer of the Duterte presidency, consists of three negative practices.

First, he speculates. A close study of many of his press briefings and media interviews shows that, on many of the subjects he is asked to speak on, he does not in fact know what President Duterte is thinking, or he has not consulted the President. He is merely anticipating what the President would say; in other words, he speculates.


The main giveaway is his characteristic use of the qualifying words, “As far as I know.” (Go ahead. Google “Salvador Panelo” + “as far as I know.”) The optimistic view is that he is qualifying his statements so that, technically, he will not end up lying. Realistically, however, this speech tic is actually a signal that HE DOES NOT KNOW what the President is currently thinking. Ditto with the President’s alter egos.

After the PhilHealth scandal broke, is Health Secretary Francisco Duque III in trouble? “As far as I know, the President still trusts Health Secretary Duque.”


After Secretary Martin Andanar hinted at a minor Cabinet revamp (and before Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol was replaced): “As far as I know, there’s none.”

After an anomaly rocks the Department of Education: “As far as I know, the secretary of education is a very competent, intelligent educator.”

After the President suggested that foreign governments were providing classified information to help build the infamous “narco-lists”: “I will say that as far as I know, nobody is providing us information.”

After the President’s on-again, off-again campaign against online gambling was on again: “As far as I know, that refers only to illegal online gambling.”

This speech tic is so habitual that sometimes he uses it even when logically and grammatically it makes no sense. Asked whether the Gem-Ver 1 fishermen will meet with the President, Panelo replied: “As far as I know, I did not hear any request and there is no invitation.” It sounds like he is speculating on his own sense of hearing.

Second, he explains with generalities; that is, on many occasions, all he does is offer motherhood statements (or, perhaps, because he is presumed to be speaking for Tatay Digong, the better, patriarchy-reflective term is fatherhood statements).

After speculating that Duque still enjoys the President’s confidence, he speculates that the President will investigate the allegations. “I’m sure. Because the President, when he receives any serious allegations, he does it.”


After speculating that he had not heard of any request from the fishermen for a meeting with the President, he acknowledges that a meeting is possible but Mr. Duterte was still waiting for all the facts to come in.

After speculating that Education Secretary Leonor Briones remains “very competent,” he speculates that she will do the right thing. “She is someone who will never allow any irregularity or any anomaly inside her department.”

None of these glittering generalities have been established, by Panelo or a third party, as fact—but he offers them to reporters as sound bytes, to be reported as fact.

Third, he disadvantages the Philippines whenever he speaks of China.

Asked whether the Philippines will summon Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua in the wake of the Gem-Ver 1 incident, he threw aside basic diplomatic protocol in his zeal to defend the ambassador’s dignity. “We cannot summon the ambassador. We have no jurisdiction over the ambassador. We’re not the government of China to summon an official of China. The word is ‘invite.’”

In a press briefing, Panelo declared that the Philippines did not have “any say” in the crafting of a loan agreement it was about to enter into with China; he changed his tune a week after, to affirm that the countries would in fact negotiate the loan “on equal footing.”

And most recently, he responded to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s warning about Chinese-owned online gaming sites located near Philippine military facilities by sharing Zhao’s menacing reply. Sen. Panfilo Lacson rightly called him to task, for serving as China’s spokesperson. Panelo’s later attempt to minimize the damage to his reputation — “That wasn’t directed to me. I was told to tell Secretary Delfin. I was not able to tell him yet,” he said in Filipino — only made him look even more subservient. Surely, the Chinese ambassador knows how to tell Lorenzana directly. And if the message was for Lorenzana, why share the message with the reporters? In all likelihood, Zhao fully expected Panelo to make China’s response heard, using the very platform of the President’s spokesperson.

Should the media cover Panelo then? Because of his twin positions, the answer is a categorical yes. Everything, including every inanity, must be documented. But if the question is “Should the media report what Panelo says?” the answer must be qualified: In those instances when he has clearly consulted the President and is therefore speaking for him, yes. On most other occasions, the answer should be no.

This editorial judgment will be difficult to enforce. In that case, perhaps we can consider the virtue of proper labeling. The media should classify his statements, when he is clearly speculating, or offering anodyne generalities as fact, or speaking for China.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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