Interpreting the President

By: Reyshimar Arguelles

SPOKESPERSON Salvador Panelo has a tough job to do, and that’s to communicate the Duterte administration’s agenda to the nation. But even more compelling is his function as official interpreter every time the President opens his mouth in another machismo-fueled tirade.

This is not surprising since Panelo and his predecessors are tasked with making sure that the administrations they serve wouldn’t do so much as shoot themselves in the foot. Words carry meanings that could enlighten the public or cause distrust. Clarity is crucial in building trust and spokespersons are given the monumental task of maintaining it as part of the government’s communication plan.

Being the chief executive, you could at least say things that won’t put your administration in dire straits. And if ever you did say something controversial or off-color, you could depend on your spokesperson to explain the words you have issued.

In Panelo’s case, the task of interpreting the President’s words falls within the realm of absurdity, considering how Duterte has a penchant for saying things that are incriminating. We don’t have to take the President’s words at face value and dig out their implications. But for Panelo to make the effort in repackaging the President’s words is an insult to the nation’s collective intelligence.

When Duterte mentioned how former Daanbantayan, Cebu mayor Vicente Loot survived an ambush in 2018, he expressed his frustration by saying “Inambush kita, buhay ka pa rin.” This, of course, purports to show Duterte’s hand in the hit against Loot. And being someone who has time and again threatened death on anyone who has irked his administration, there’s not much to do but take Duterte’s words as they are.

Then again, Panelo, being the protector of the administration’s reputation, insisted that the President merely mistranslated himself. He could’ve said, “Na ambush ka” (You were ambushed) and Panelo stuck by this interpretation regardless of the utter absurdity it contains. To Panelo’s mind, people should’ve gotten used to having a Visayan president who speaks in a mixture of Bisaya, Tagalog, and English.

What’s funny here is that Panelo could’ve simply explained that the President’s comments about Loot were based on his frustration of the illegal drugs problem, which continues to proliferate to this day. Instead, Panelo treated the issue by blaming those who supposedly “misunderstood” the President’s words.

But what’s clear from all this is that Duterte is angry about illegal drugs and has continually made threats against drug lords who have yet to surrender themselves to the law. Whether or not it was a slip of the tongue, we couldn’t shrug off the fact that Duterte is capable of doing things that are far from legal.

It should make us wonder how Panelo is able to stick around despite being this administration’s shock absorber. Of course, there are special reasons why he was hired as Duterte’s spokesperson. He has led a colorful life defending murderers such as the ex-Calauan mayor Antonio Sanchez as well as the perpetrators of the Ampatuan Massacre.

It’s these experiences that have secured Panelo’s reputation in defending the most grotesque and vilest creatures and still not getting irked by the fact that he’s a master liar. If anything, he doesn’t show much remorse with what he has become. For all we know, he is sitting comfortably at his office, undisturbed by the fact that he’d still lie his way out of a difficult situation even if Duterte openly admits to murder.

And that’s what makes Panelo so dangerous if not impressive. No one else would have calmly faced the media and say that there was indeed a case of miscommunication.

At any rate, Panelo would still be laughing at the numbskulls who still believe the lies he continuously churn out.