Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte linked key opposition politicians Wednesday to a purported plot to discredit his three-year-old administration, ramping up attacks against his opponents ahead of next week’s mid-term elections.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Duterte received information that members of the Liberal Party as well as the Magdalo group, which includes former junior military officers involved in a failed mutiny in 2003, were allegedly conspiring with certain media organizations to discredit the government.
“The president has received intelligence information that has been validated and appears to show that there is deliberate attempt to discredit this administration, as well as to boost the candidacies of the opposition, senatorial candidates,” Panelo said in a hastily-called news conference.
“And it appears that there are certain groups who are working together to achieve this goal,” he said. “Some personalities identified as advocates or very active in social media, dishing out anti-Duterte statements and sentiments and validated to be allied with the Liberal Party.”
The Liberal Party was the political party of former President Benigno Aquino, who was in office from 2010 to 2016. The Magdalo group, which was allegedly behind a failed coup plot about 16 years ago, is led by Sen. Antonio Trillanes, one of the staunchest critics of Duterte’s drug war that has killed thousands.
Panelo’s statement came a week after he told reporters that the government had no substantial evidence about an alleged plot to oust Duterte, and would only file lawsuits against the alleged conspirators once an actual crime was committed.
Panelo had earlier linked online news sites Rappler and Vera Files, as well as the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in the alleged plot to discredit the chief executive. The three media organizations, which had published stories critical of Duterte and his family, had debunked the allegations.
Among those named by Panelo on Wednesday were Neri Colmenares, a former lawmaker and a member of the left-leaning National Union of People’s Lawyers, his colleague Carlos Zarate, as well as Gary Alejano, a member of the House of Representatives who was a former Marine captain and a close ally of Trillanes.
Panelo admitted that the government did not have “substantial evidence” as of yet, but said Duterte’s office had passed the information to the justice department, which would then study and decide whether a case can be filed.
He denied that the government was engaged in a crackdown to silence legitimate dissent in the Philippines, one Asia’s most freewheeling democracies.
“If what they are doing is black propaganda, it means it's libelous. The moment the police and other law enforcement agencies have sufficient evidence, cases will be filed against all of them,” Panelo said.
“This government cannot crack down on those who are practicing the freedom of expression,” he said.
Panelo’s statement followed recent controversy on social media after a series of independently produced videos came out with allegations that Duterte and his associates were, ironically, involved in drug trafficking.
The videos surfaced after a former police officer had accused Duterte of employing a Chinese adviser who allegedly had ties to Chinese drug traffickers. Duterte has denied the accusation.
Alejano on Wednesday charged that Panelo’s release of unverified information was not only irresponsible but libelous. He denied having a hand in the release of the videos.
The presidential palace has “a long history of releasing unvalidated information to the public,” Alejano told reporters.
“They even backtrack or change tune in the middle of the issue,” he said. “This is an abuse of power without being held liable for the consequences of their irresponsible actions and incompetence.”
He noted that the allegations came out days before the polls, and was clearly an attempt to “destroy the image of the opposition.”
Duterte has previously issued scandalous remarks that his spokesman had described as hyperbole.
‘I challenge him to present evidence’
Ellen Tordesillas, who heads the investigative website Vera Files, slammed Panelo and denied allegations of involvement in any anti-Duterte plot. Vera Files has published reports that fact-checked false claims made by Duterte and his officials.
“I deny allegations by Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo linking me to any imagined destabilization efforts against the administration. I challenge him to present evidence, not just silly diagrams,” Tordesillas told reporters.
The National Union of Journalist in the Philippines on Wednesday slammed Panelo’s statements as a “piece of unadulterated crap.”
“At best, this is yet another badly concocted fiction meant to scare their perceived enemies but which only ends up making them look ridiculous, “ the group said.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City contributed to this report.