Blurring the message

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Tita C. Valderama

Tita C. Valderama

Despite its many faults and flaws, the Duterte administration at times deserves our collective support. Friday night’s explosion in Davao City is an incident that should bind us as a nation. We should be together in the fight against misguided elements sowing fear in our midst.

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This is the time for freedom-loving Filipinos to condemn and show outrage against lawless groups for attacking unsuspecting and innocent civilians.

Unfortunately, though, in the aftermath of this violent incident, the President’s spokespersons showed us leadership in disarray. They were speaking in discordant voices that sow confusion instead of giving us a picture of a situation under control. In short, President Rodrigo Duterte’s communications people were miscommunicating to the public. If this is their crisis management style, then we should be disturbed.

They would have simply said that the President decided to avail himself of his power under the Constitution to tap the Armed Forces for law enforcement, which is the territory of the police, to make sure that the Davao City explosion would not happen elsewhere.

Apart from the drug menace, the Davao City bombing is a real test for the two-month-old Duterte administration at crisis management. In fairness, the President, who was somewhere in his beloved hometown when it happened while many of us were already sleeping that Friday night, was quick on the draw. His children, Mayor Sara and Vice Mayor Paolo, were decisive.

To show that Dabawenos are not cowed by the explosion, Mayor Sara declared that business at the night market was back on Saturday night, less than 24 hours after the blast on Roxas Avenue, just across the Ateneo de Davao.

The mayor said Davao City is “standing up now, not tomorrow, but right now” because they believe that the “measure of success of terrorism is how long a victim stands up” after an attack.

“It will take a hundred bomb incidents in Davao City to put us down,” she said.

It was heart-breaking to see footage of the President visiting the blast victims in hospitals and assuring their families of the government’s support. He even went to the morgue where the dead were kept. Those gestures surely helped ease the pain of the injured victims and their families. We know that it is not just for publicity because visiting the sick and the dead seems to be this President’s way of showing sympathy with victims of unfortunate incidents.

The problem really was on how some of the President’s communications people handled the situation, specifically following his declaration of a state of lawlessness. We have a problem when the President’s chief legal counsel could not clearly explain what a declaration of a “state of lawless violence” means, and what it covers.

For hours, there was confusion on whether it was confined to Davao City where the explosion left 14 people dead and 67 wounded, or is nationwide. Journalists were complaining that they could not get hold of a hard copy of the presidential issuance hours after the President announced it in a chance interview in Davao City so they could accurately report the news.

Salvador Panelo further blurred the line when he explained in an interview on CNN Philippines with anchor Pia Hontiveros that the declaration of a state of lawlessness was anchored on the drug menace that has infiltrated 98 percent of the barangay (villages) across the country, the extrajudicial killings related to the drug problem and terrorism.

It was puzzling. Was the Davao City explosion the handiwork of terrorists who are engaged in the drug trade? Did drug lords finance the terroristic activity?

From social media threads, ordinary people where asking what a state of lawlessness means. It is unavoidable to be reminded of the events that led to the declaration of martial rule in September 1972. Some voiced apprehension that this could be a prelude to authoritarian rule, particularly after the President had warned Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno about it a few weeks ago.

What was more worrying was the Facebook post of Peter Tiu Lavina, one of the spokespersons and head of the social media team of the Duterte campaign team. While he has no Cabinet position – but one news story I read online described him as a deputy Cabinet secretary – we have reason to believe that he wields influence in the President and his administration. Sometimes those who have no legal accountability wield more influence.

It was disturbing for Lavina to make public his conspiracy theories that not only pointed to the drug lords and terrorist groups as the brains behind the Davao City bombing but also the political opposition and the combined force of all anti-Duterte groups. That was before the police could release the result of its initial investigation and while key officials in the Duterte Cabinet were urging the public to keep calm and assuring them that the situation was under control. That was when more people were voicing outrage against the violence and support for the administration in this fight against lawlessness. That was indeed irresponsible.

Was Lavina out of the loop or is he in charge of the dirty tricks department? Perhaps he enjoys seeing the country getting more divided so he is sowing seeds of division and confusion.

Well, can we expect more from somebody who could not even apologize for taking to task the Commission on Human Rights and what he called as “presstitutes” over an incident which, it turned out, happened in Brazil in 2014. Lavina is completely out of line.

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