The presidential prerogative to free speech

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ARLENE P. DONAIRE

A WAYWARD swinging pendulum is what I like to use as visual reference for the logic or absence of it in some presidential pronouncements. Others would call the presidential style of communicating and the automatic “mopping-up operations” by official spokespersons a circus or comedy of sorts. Either way, while it is not something that is unheard of, as we’ve seen other presidents in the past commit slip-ups in their public talks and then have their staff retract, sugarcoat, or redirect blame, it is noticeably more the norm than the exception in the current administration.

At one end of the random swing are what appear to be reckless, impulsive, and unfounded statements which when delivered in the President’s signature irreverent punchlines, hit the bullseye and generate rousing applause, especially from an audience hungry for heroic action. At the other end are the wisecracks that are filled with admissible revolutionary ideas and those rare moments of brilliance, especially when he announces well-thought out long-term plans. If one is among the 16 million Filipinos who voted for Duterte, it is likely that his words would be taken without reservation and accepted as gospel truth. For those who choose to move away from the flow, the contrarians and the quizzicals, they do so with eyes rolling in disbelief that a head of state would, without restraint, matter-of-factly announce flash decisions and comments that unduly subject the entire country to adverse repercussions, whether perceived or real.

Does the presidential prerogative to his version of free speech then make it right for him to speak in a fashion that many deem to be uncouth, blatant, and even bullying? In the cinematic context, the “strongman” approach works perfectly for the beleaguered protagonist and in the President’s case, it works just as well in the shortrun because it delivers a shock to our lethargic system. But the style might backfire more often than not, and he would need a regular supply of vacuum cleaners. His supporters would say that the President is naturally inclined to stick with his tough-guy communication style because it had worked for him as Davao City’s mayor. He successfully transformed the provincial city into a flourishing first-class LGU with the brand of leadership and engagement that “shocks, shakes down, and shapes up” the constituents. So why would he change his ways now?

Perhaps there is a positive correlation in the “strongman leadership and communication style” but then again, the Philippines is not just Davao City, it is more! Outside the country, there is a larger audience and stakeholder—the rest of the world, which, for us represents many things—a trading partner, technology resource, security ally, employer of OFWs, and source of foreign cooperation, among others. To the rest of the world, a presidential statement, depending on how it is expressed, once published or broadcast, has the potential to be either fully understood or misconstrued, and can work for or against the country. A disparaging remark made against officials of foreign governments can spell the end of good relations that have been built up historically with sound development diplomacy. No amount of cleansing the aftershocks, by the presidential entourage, will revert us to base zero.


Whenever I get wind of one of those explosive cum expletive presidential pronouncements, the concerned citizen in me, who happens to have worked in the development sector in her entire professional career of three decades to date, cannot help but wonder if the President has had the benefit of proper advice or complete staff work. I was particularly disturbed when, for instance, former US President Obama became the President’s favorite scourging pillar, and when he told the European Community diplomatic officers to leave the country. For inherent in these negative messages is the implication that he did not value the American and European official development assistance (ODA) to the country. Because my work since 1988 has revolved around economic planning and managing government projects that are funded by international donors, I have actual experience to back my opinion that ODA has greatly contributed in implementing public interest programs that would otherwise not have been funded or undertaken by government. So, I squirm at the thought that our President may have given the wrong impression of the Philippines being an ingrate to the international community of donors. For me, it is “incredulous” (that is, “incredibly ridiculous”) to burn bridges when one can build more, a role we expect our President to play.

But then again, perhaps the President was really aware of the line he crossed. Juxtaposing his anti-US and anti-EU outbursts with eventual announcements that the country would have stronger alliances with China and Russia on matters of public investment projects in the country, one can conclude that he simply wanted to prove that he can set his own standards for diplomatic relations, completely against the tide. In disparaging the traditional partners, he would expunge them from the system and make room for new allies. The President’s prerogative, matched with his bravado and the gumption to do whatever it takes to shake things up, may be what we need and perhaps this China-Russia alliances will yield good results, but these remain to be seen. At the moment, one can’t help but be wary of the negative repercussions.

In general, I am one of the counter-followers, not because I have an organic dislike for our President but because I advocate for good governance. I maintain a deep respect for the presidency as a national institution; it is a position that demands the “occupant” to have utmost responsibility and caution with his or her words and actions. Personally, I have no answer to the question of, “has the presidential prerogative to free speech gone too far?” I am neither an expert on protocol or communications. But having worked for, with, and under different types of effective leaders with varying approaches in communicating their ideas across, I have seen a common desirable quality. That is, effective leaders prefer to be grounded on the proper study of the problem, are circumspect in their speech, and are diplomatic in their delivery of messages no matter the situation. These are qualities that I would hope to see more and more not just in our President but also among his chosen messengers.

There are two valuable things in life that cannot be reclaimed—lost time and ill-chosen words. My sincere wish is for our President to not have to regret both.

The author has master’s degrees in economics from UP Diliman and public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. She has worked as economic development specialist at the NEDA, strategic planning head at the PNOC Holding Company and project manager for various ODA- funded programs.

apdonaire@yahoo.com

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1 Comment

  1. Whether we like it or not, politics is a power game. President Duterte just don’t like behind-closed-doors power displays. he would prefer to show it in public. It is very risky, yes, but it is effective in passing the spotlight to the US, UN, UK, or whoever is his target of his uncouth mouth. Those targets will be forced to make statements especially if most of them would rather stay silent.