Sal Panelo Takes Back His Job as Presidential Mouthpiece from Harry Roque

Let's revisit this 2016 interview to remember his special relationship with the president.
IMAGE Rennell Salumbre

Two days ago, President Rodrigo Duterte announced his consideration of Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo for the position of Press Secretary. The post was originally intended for the current Presidential Spokesperson, Harry Roque, who is now mulling over a bid for the Senate.

"Tutal, tiga-announce man lang 'yan si Sal Panelo," said the President to reporters covering the announcement. "With all sartorial elegance, medyo maganda siguro tingnan."

(Confused face emoji.)

Earlier today, it was announced that the role of spokesperson has officially been given to Panelo. More accurately, Panelo will be reprising the role, as one might recall that he was briefly the Presidential Spokesperson when Duterte assumed office in 2016.

Later that year, shortly after Panelo was replaced by Ernesto Abella, Esquire Philippines caught up with the man who was then Chief Presidential Legal Counsel. Panelo had a lot to say about his brief stint as spokesperson, and about the bond he shares with the President. Here are a few excerpts from that interview, which regrettably, are very relevant again:


ESQUIRE: For a short time, you were Presidential Spokesperson. Did you enjoy that job?

SALVADOR PANELO: Even prior to [Duterte] being the president, he already told me, “Pare, ikaw ang gusto kong Secretary of Justice, or kahit Chief Presidential Legal Counsel.” Pero nung manalo na siya, nagulat ako, inannounce niya na Spokesman. I will quote him: “You express my thoughts in the way I want it.”

ESQ: What is it about him that you understand?

SP: I can read his mind kasi. We’ve been together for 30 years. Magbarkada kami. And we both belong to the left. We’re both lawyers. We’re both very strict. Ayaw namin ng corruption. We are outraged by any act of brutality or violation of any right of the citizen. Pareho kaming street-smart.


ESQ: So you two are very like-minded.

SP: May mind-melt nga daw kami sabi niya sa magazine e.

ESQ: Do you mean “mind meld”?

SP: Mind melt. Melting of the minds. Ten years ago, I advocated for the abolition of Congress, the establishment of a constitutional dictatorship. But by my third year, wala pa ang pangalan niya. Seven years ago, bumanat na ako: “We need Duterte.” Tapos I brainwashed him, in a way; sabi ko sa kanya, “You have a date with destiny.” Gumanon ako. “If you run, you’ll win, landslide.” Bwisit na bwisit siya sa akin, “Tigilan mo na ‘yang kabalbalan mo, pare. Ayokong tumakbo.”

"Yan ang naging role ko—ako ang nagpapaliwanag. I speak for the President pag medyo mabibigat na ang usapan."

ESQ: Would you tell the president if he was wrong?

SP: Oh, yes, of course. But it is seldom that he is wrong. He’s a thinking person. May sasabihin ka sa kanya, makikinig lang ‘yun sayo hanggang ma-absorb niya. Pagiisipan niya. Gaya nung Constitutional Convention, inaannounce na ‘yung Con-Con tapos nagulat ang mga tao— bakit Constituent Assembly na lang? E simple lang ang paliwanag, e. We need money. Tapos eight billion ang magagastos natin. Matagal pa.

ESQ: So do you think the media just doesn’t understand President Duterte?

SP: It’s not exactly the media in its entirety. It’s only one or two reporters that have a wrong interpretation of what he says. The President is a one-liner man. He doesn’t seem to explain. But he actually does, if you listen to him thoroughly and intently. In the course of his, ‘yung sinasabi nilang...

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ESQ: Ramblings?

SP: Ramblings.... Napapaliwanag niya, e. Pero ‘pag narinig mo lang ‘yung one-liner niya, sulat ka na kaagad, ah magkakamali ka. ‘Yan ang naging role ko—ako ang nagpapaliwanag. I speak for the President pag medyo mabibigat na ang usapan.

ESQ: Practically every time he opened his mouth you had to come to the rescue.

SP: Oo. Like, ‘yung BBC, tumawag sa akin, nung spokesman pa niya ‘ko. “Attorney Panelo, your President said he will kill 3,789 criminals”. When, actually, what was said and meant was that he would pursue to the ends of the earth and put behind bars the criminals, and if they resist, they will be killed. And that’s allowed under the law. Natawa si Rody. “Actually ‘yan ang gusto kong sabihin, pare.”

ESQ: Even people who didn’t vote for him seem to agree with most of what the President has been doing, but what they can’t forgive are the extrajudicial killings.

SP: Hindi naman totoo ‘yun. Let me tell you: Bakit maraming napapatay? ‘Wag na nating sabihin ‘yung mga gustong manlaban, ‘yung, in other words, police offi cers are only defending themselves. Ang talagang katotohanan niyan, hindi ba sabi niya, surrender. ‘Yung mga nagsusurrender na ‘yun, magtuturo ‘yun e. So ‘yung ituturo nila, papatayin ka. Kaya may salvaging. Ituturo ka nila e. ‘Yan ang nangyayari ngayon. They’re killing each other.

ESQ: The war on drugs has been a huge failure in other countries. Shouldn’t there be a different approach to the problem?


SP: Hindi, kasi ang problema, bakit ba mayroong drugs? Kasi mayroong source. So you go to the source. Pero nasaan ang source? You have to find out where the source is. Right now, it’s coming daw from China. ‘Yung iba, Mexico. E ‘yan ang sisirain mo. But meanwhile, siyempre titirahin mo ‘yung mga pusher. Sila nagpu-push, e. Kung walang nagpu-push, walang bibili, ‘di ba? Hindi nagsa-succeed ang war on drugs sa ibang bansa kasi pati sila ay kasangkot. Sa Mexico, sila-sila rin ‘yun e: ‘yung government offi cials. But not this one. Gusto mong magmura si Rody? Banggit ka lang ng drugs. Umiinit agad ang ulo

"Actually, what was said and meant was that he would pursue to the ends of the earth and put behind bars the criminals, and if they resist, they will be killed. And that’s allowed under the law. Natawa si Rody. 'Actually ‘yan ang gusto kong sabihin, pare.'"

ESQ: Does it concern you that the image of the Philippines is becoming that of a bloody, tyrannical society?

SP: ‘Yung mga critics lang ang nagsasabi nun, but you ask the ordinary people. We invite the Human Rights Commision, come here and see for yourselves. Nakikinig lang sila sa chismis, galing sa mga critics ng Presidente.

ESQ: What happens if the President is tried for crimes against humanity?

SP: Malabo ‘yun. Anong ebidensya ginagawa niya? His policy is, they will not go unpunished, there’s hell to pay, I will not tolerate salvaging. That’s the offi cial policy.

ESQ: Now that the Duterte administration has inherited the West Philippine Sea issue, what is your advice for him?

SP: The legal issues have been resolved. But the differences remain unsettled. So what do you do? You talk. Kaya marunong nga si Rody, eh—a thinking President. Anong gagawin natin diyan? Mag-usap na lang tayo. Let’s talk.


ESQ: With China?

SP: Yeah. We don’t want war. We cannot afford to go to war. We are not capacitated to do that. So let’s just talk. Foster goodwill muna. I cannot even understand why we are friends with America when China is just a neighbor, and now we’re against our neighbors.

ESQ: Why is Marcos’ burial in Libingan ng mga Bayani so important to Duterte?

SP: He feels the issue has divided the country for so long and he wants to put closure on that.When he was campaigning, he repeatedly said, these are the things I’m going to do as president, one of them is to bury Marcos. From my point of view, when he said that and the people overwhelmingly elected him as president, those who voted for him, the 16 million, gave him the authority and the mandate to perform the things he promised us hence—whatever agreements entered into between Ramos and the family, na-supersede na lahat ‘yun. Moreover, the regulations nakalagay, presidente, sundalo, pasok lahat, mayroon sinasabi, those who receive valor awards.

ESQ: What is the most important issue for the President? Is it the drug problem?

SP: First, stop the drug menace, stop corruption, stop criminality. We really have a problem with drugs because now there are 600,000 surrenderers. According to experts, if you are addicted to shabu it is irreversible. My suggestion is to create a community for them. Buy an island, build schools, factories. Give them livelihoods. By doing that, they are saved from themselves, and society is saved from them.


Say hello to the new Presidential Spokesperson. IMAGE: Rennell Salumbre


The full interview was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits were made by the editors.

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