Too many faux presidential spokesmen
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - April 25, 2018 - 12:00am

As a member of the Cabinet, each Department Secretary is considered as “alter ego” of the President and therefore can speak for and in behalf of their Chief Executive. But that authority to speak for the President is limited to his or her area of jurisdiction, or matters related to his or her Department.

The only exemption to this rule is given to the presidential spokesperson who could and is allowed to respond to issues and questions referred to the Office of the President and, or, for the entire Executive Department for that matter.

However, the presidential spokesperson has the option to defer questions and issues to specific Departments or concerned government agencies in the Executive Branch. Anyway, other than the Cabinet official, each Department is supposed to have an official spokesperson since each has a public information office in their respective organizational charts.

So the job of the incumbent Presidential spokesperson, former Kabayan party-list Rep. Harry Roque, should be a walk in the park, so to speak. For the very articulate lawyer and ex-congressman, Roque is now finding out perhaps too late in the day one of the reasons why his immediate predecessor did not stay long in his job. And perhaps, too, erstwhile presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella could only commiserate with Roque.

For Roque though, the job offer to become the President’s new mouthpiece was a timely one because he was then having troubles with his own Kabayan party-list group pushing for his removal from the 17th Congress.

Abella was among the first appointees of President Rodrigo Duterte upon assuming office at Malacañang Palace in June 2016. Abella served as presidential spokesman until he was replaced by Roque on Nov. 6 last year. President Duterte allegedly got dissatisfied with how Abella, a pastor by profession, handled several issues hounding his administration.

President Duterte, however, kept mum on the matter, except saying: “The reason is my personal decision. I am not about to explain why I did it.” Abella, however, obviously remains in the high esteem of the President who appointed him to become one of the undersecretaries of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Issuing his own statement after his unceremonious exit at Malacañang, Abella conceded: “It is clear that the president has very sure instincts and that PS (Presidential Spokesperson) Roque meets his expectations.”

The tough-talking President, however, is confident that Roque – who is equally a tough-talking guy – would be better in echoing his message to the public as his presidential spokesman. Thus, early on his assumption as presidential spokesman, Roque came under fire already when he tried to be cute in sending this warning to rabid critics of President Duterte: “If you throw stones, I would throw hollow blocks.”

In October last year, Abella made a controversial advice to Palace journalists to use their “creative imagination”  to decipher and interpret President Duterte’s statement about cutting ties with the United States. 

Abella’s advice floored me when I first heard it, having personally dealt with several presidential spokespersons during my several years of pounding the beat at Malacañang Palace and covered four presidents.

Apparently, however, many presidential spokesman-wannabes are even getting ahead of Roque in doing this job. Or, at times, even preempting Roque in the performance of his job. Take the case of Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol who loves to get ahead of the presidential spokesperson to announce decisions arrived at during the Cabinet meetings of President Duterte. Even if the announcement did not have anything to do with the Agriculture Department, Piñol wants to be one to give the “scoop” to his Facebook followers. 

A former sportswriter-turned politician, Piñol turns to his Facebook and posts an account of major decisions reached during the President’s Cabinet meeting. Actually, there is nothing wrong if a Cabinet official wants to inform the public about presidential decisions. However, when such information is not filtered and worse, if half-baked announcement is done, it defeats the whole purpose of transparency.

The latest to break the protocol got this time a public tongue-lashing from Roque himself. This was after Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) commissioner Greco Belgica went around in media interviews and announced that five or six Duterte Cabinet members are soon getting the boot from the President. Naturally, such headline-grabbing or breaking news story gets so much traction when it comes out in mainstream media.

In his regular press briefing at Malacañang Palace last Monday, Roque minced no words in assailing how such sensitive information was so loosely announced by Belgica who, as the latter clarified later, referred merely to alleged PACC investigation about the six unnamed Duterte Cabinet officials. Belgica claimed the PACC recommended to the Chief Executive the dismissal of the alleged erring Cabinet officials from their respective offices.

“Let me clarify this: Until the President says it and I tell you that there’s another one, there’s no one else scheduled for the chopping block,” Roque declared. “If there will be another one, I will let you know,” Roque told Palace reporters.

The Presidential spokesperson called out the attention of the PACC commissioner for the “confusion because of the information” which did not come from the Office of the President. “But for now, I will also clarify the mandate of the Anti-Graft Commission,” Roque pointed out. “And number two, we will have to come up with an agreement on information. I think they do not know only the procedure of the Palace on what qualifies as presidential statements,” he stressed.

Anyone who second-guesses the Chief Executive is nothing but a faux presidential spokesperson.

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Senate president Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III is our featured guest today in our weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast forum at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle, Malate.

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