Interview with Presidential Spokesperson and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Secretary Salvador Panelo by Christian Esguerra (ANC – Early Edition)

Event Media Interview

ESGUERRA: … we shouldn’t jump into conclusion. So did the Secretary of Defense and the head of the Philippine Navy jumped into conclusions when they issued those strong statements, in particular the Navy Chief. He said, “It was not an ordinary accident.”

SEC. PANELO: Christian, as I said earlier, those initial reactions were based on initial findings. But since there are circumstances coming out, which previously unknown to them, then when the facts are changed, you change your position. It depends kung anong bagong mga kalakaran.

ESGUERRA: But was that statement, in particular coming from the Philippine Navy Chief, quite premature because he was basing that, according to you, from initial investigation or initial information that was gathered?

SEC. PANELO: That’s an initial reaction, which you cannot also blame them kasi apektado iyong ating mga kababayan. Kaya hindi pupuwedeng hindi ka rin mag-react eh.

But since lumiliwanag na at kaya nga—that’s why we are asking the Chinese government, eh kailangan pagbutihin ninyo ang imbestigasyon dito. That’s why—yesterday, I was even tinkering with the idea to suggest na let us have a joint investigation para pareho tayong mag-iimbestiga nitong insidenteng ito, para walang bias.

ESGUERRA: So what was the response so far?

SEC. PANELO: Hindi, wala pa. I’m just tinkering—

ESGUERRA: Will that happen?

SEC. PANELO: No, no, Christian, that’s just an idea which I have not given to the President or to the Ambassador.

ESGUERRA: Now, of course, the context here is that …the perception is that the Philippines is treading cautiously because its China involved. Now the question is: Is Malacañang actually or the President even somehow tempering the reaction or changing the version of the story because he doesn’t want to offend China? How do you respond to those perceptions?

SEC. PANELO: Not offending actually. Very clear naman ang sinasabi niya eh, “I will not issue a policy statement on this because the facts are not yet in.” Kailangan marinig muna natin. They have the right to be heard also.

Alam mo si Presidente, apart from being a lawyer, he is a very responsible leader; ayaw niyang to plunge this or to make this incident an international crisis. Tingnan muna natin. Calibrated nga ang kaniyang response, depende sa nakikita niya.

ESGUERRA: Now, how do you explain this conclusion coming from the President when he said the other night, it was a little or simple maritime accident or incident? Doesn’t that somehow prejudge the ongoing investigation?

SEC. PANELO: Hindi naman because that is an initial look at the circumstance given the version of the cook. At the same time, tandaan mo Christian, mayroon din silang initial reaction. Ang initial reaction din nila, through a press release sinabi nila sa atin na hindi naman aksidente lang and natakot iyong mga tripolante nila kaya umalis sila roon.

So iyon ang mga initial reaction. But after that, the Ambassador told me that they are seriously studying further the incident, kasi may iba-ibang version nga eh. Kumbaga, parang kaso iyan sa isang hukuman – may nag-file ng kaso, may contrary claim, and then the judge will have to determine which one is correct, which one is right.

ESGUERRA: Iyon nga, precisely. But the question is: While the investigation is ongoing, the President said, it was a simple or little maritime accident or incident which was very similar to the statement issued by the Chinese when they said it was an ordinary maritime accident. So basically, there was already a conclusion on the part of the President and China that was an accident. So how do you explain that?

SEC. PANELO: Not necessarily. Those are initial conclusion based on initial findings. As I said, when facts change, you change your position. Otherwise, kung ipagpipilitan mo iyong initial finding mo na on the basis of concrete, credible, contrary proof ay may problema ka doon.

ESGUERRA: So why not somehow desist from commenting on whether that was an accident or incident in the meantime and just base on what was established clearly so far based on initial information available; and I’m referring to the fact that the 22 fishermen were left at sea? So that particular fact was quite established already so why not focus on that and reserve the conclusion on whether that was an accident or incident to the findings of the official investigation?

SEC. PANELO: Number one, noong hindi siya umiimik, maraming maingay na, ‘Bakit hindi ka umiimik?” Ngayong umimik, maingay na naman. You know, you cannot deprive this President of giving his impression, initial impression on the matter. But may colatilla naman siya, “But let us wait for the facts.”

Number two, tandaan mo Christian, the very first statements made by three Cabinet members – that includes me – was to condemn the abandonment. Iyon ang pinaka-importante roon eh. Whether intentional or not, we condemn the act of abandoning the fishermen. Iyon ang pinakapunto natin doon eh. Hindi tayo nagkulang doon, immediately nandoon kaagad ang reaction natin.

ESGUERRA: But don’t you think that particular, somehow, opinion of yours is quite – excuse me for the term that I’m going to use – quite juvenile when you said that when the President was not yet talking, people were pressuring him to talk; now that he talked, they’re criticizing what he said? I think the point here is that the President—

SEC. PANELO: Oh hindi ba? ‘Di ba iyan ang lumalabas ngayon? When he was silent or when we said—he is not silent because he is speaking through the alter egos. When we expressed outrage, the President was expressing outrage through us by the fact of the abandonment. Iyon ang linya ni Presidente.

ESGUERRA: But my point is, I think there should have been more care taken when you talk about premature conclusions because you mentioned already that that was an initial conclusion. But still, that was a conclusion and it was coming from the President which gave that more weight.

SEC. PANELO: But even—alam mo, Christian, in many events of the world, in crises all over the world, there will always be initial reaction on the basis of initial findings. Then the conclusion changes when the facts develop into something else. Kailangan ganiyan ka talaga kumilos. Hindi naman pupuwedeng ipagpipilitan mo iyong mali eh masyado nang klaro hindi naman pala.

ESGUERRA: Aren’t you just somehow trying to put some semblance of unity in an otherwise contradicting statements coming from the Cabinet compared to the one that was said by the President—

SEC. PANELO: There are no contradicting statements, Christian. I beg your pardon, show me what contradiction you have in mind and I’ll show that there is none.

ESGUERRA: Okay, the Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad said, “It was not an ordinary accident.” And of course, it was very much strongly condemned initially by the Defense Secretary. And then of course, the Secretary of Energy said, “Daplis lang, so it was possible that it was not intentional.” And here we have the President’s versions and you have China’s version. So you have different versions coming up based on that particular singular incident.

SEC. PANELO: But you are not considering the timeline. The initial conclusion was ‘it’s intentional.’ The next conclusion is ‘it might not be intentional.’ You consider the timeline. Hindi naman sabay-sabay na iba ang sinasabi.

ESGUERRA: Now, how do you respond to those who are now criticizing the President that they’re saying that the President simply echoed the line of China?

SEC. PANELO: Not really echoed. Kung nagkataon man na similar iyong kanilang initial finding, it doesn’t mean na mayroon silang usapan na ganoon. You must remember na the President, ever since palaging bago siya magsalita, he investigates. Eh wala pa ngang facts kaya—pero palagay ko ang mas mahalagang pag-usapan, anong gagawin natin sa ginawang abandonment sapagka’t it’s a violation on the UNCLOS kung hindi nila tinulungan ito. Iyon ang mas mahalaga, kung ano ang gagawin natin dito sa ating mga kababayan.

And we said—we decided already sa cluster Cabinet na tutulungan natin, at tinulungan na nga even before that. Iyon ang mas mahalaga doon.

ESGUERRA: And I think also more important is to make sure that fishermen would get justice after what happened to them?

SEC. PANELO: Yes, we will not allow absence of responsibility on the part of the wrongdoers. And in fact, even the Chinese government said so itself na hindi rin sila papayag na ganoon. In fact, they said, irresponsible behavior iyong abandonment; and they will impose—

ESGUERRA: I’d also like to get a clarification from you because there were reports a few days ago, or I think the other day, saying that Malacañang was considering summoning or inviting the Chinese Ambassador to clarify or to give its official version so far of what happened at Recto Bank. Was there an actual move to invite or summon the Chinese Ambassador?

SEC. PANELO: You know, when I attended the cluster Cabinet meeting, there was a suggestion from one Cabinet member to summon – that was the word ‘summon.’ And then, since I was in a hurry because I had to go to Cavite, Sangley Point for an event, I didn’t know that they decided to summon or invite, which ever word you use it. And I was saying that we cannot use the word ‘summon’ because parang may command na para bang subordinate natin na pinapupunta mo. ‘Invite’ would be more like it.

Now, that was a recommendation. Rekomendasyon lang iyon, Christian. But I think the President is not inclined to that given his position. Anong posisyon niya? Ang posisyon niya: Let’s hear the facts first.

When you invite the Ambassador, ang assumption mo ay may kasalanan na kaagad sila. Kasi bakit mo siya iimbitahan, tatanungin mo, ‘Anong paliwanag ninyo dito, bakit ganiyan iyan?’ Eh sinasabi na nga sa atin, ‘nag-iimbestiga kami.’ So premature na imbitahan siya.

The time to invite him is kung nag-present sila ng facts na contrary sa facts-finding natin. Then we will invite him, sabihin natin, “Excuse me, Mr. Ambassador, mukha yatang malabo iyang findings ninyo. Ito ang findings namin.” That’s the time, not before.

ESGUERRA: Okay. Aren’t we being too careful with China here? Because I remember, February 2018 – so this was last year – Malacañang also summoned or invited the Ambassador of the United States to explain the tagging of President Duterte in its report.

SEC. PANELO: Iba naman iyon, Christian.

ESGUERRA: Actually, the report was published by the US Intelligence Agency. So basically, Malacañang could do that if it chooses to do so?

SEC. PANELO: Christian, that’s different. When the US Ambassador was invited, may established fact. Anong iyong established fact: They are tagging the President as a threat to democracy. That’s established fact that’s why we wanted to know, “Excuse me, anong basis ninyo?”

Pareho rin iyan nung Canada. Bakit daw sa Canada si Presidente ay masyadong matapang. Ito ang kaibahan, Christian: sa Canada, established fact din iyon; six years nang hindi tayo iniintindi. Ito, hindi pa nga established ang facts kaya iba ang galaw niya rito.

ESGUERRA: Pero iyon nga, I’ll go back to the established fact here—

SEC. PANELO: But we would like assure Christian, we would like to assure our fishermen na hindi namin kayo pababayaan at hindi namin kayo pinapabayaan, lalung-lalo na iyong mga nangingisda doon. That is precisely why during the cluster Cabinet meeting, we decided na kailangan dagdagan talaga ang mga Coast Guards para maproteksiyunan natin iyong mga mangingisda natin doon sa lugar na iyon.

ESGUERRA: Okay. Now, again, I’ll go back to the established facts because you mentioned that, which was the basis you said of the invitation of Malacañang to the US Ambassador before and, of course, the statement by the President on the Canadian trash. Again, the established fact here was that 22 fishermen were left at sea. Didn’t that somehow—that very fact, somehow require clarification or enlightenment coming from the Chinese Ambassador?

SEC. PANELO: No. The Chinese government has to investigate why they did it, ‘di ba? Kailangan malaman, kasi like for instance mayroon silang version na natakot sila; we want to know bakit kayo natakot? Was this fear justified, ‘di ba? Kasi even under the UNCLOS, Christian, while you are required to give assistance to ship or passengers in a vessel in distress, if it endangers your own safety you are not required to do that.

So kailangan malaman natin, ‘bakit ba, bakit kayo umalis?’ We want to know that. Iniimbestigahan nila iyon. Hindi si Ambassador Zhao ang iimbestigahan natin, he’s not the one involved. Iimbestigahan siyempre ng Chinese government iyong kanilang involved na nationals or countrymen.

ESGUERRA: But are you buying that initial version coming from the Chinese that they failed to rescue the 22 fishermen because they were being besieged by seven to eight Filipino boats? Do you even buy that?

SEC. PANELO: Christian, hindi question iyong buying or not. Kaya nga tayo hindi muna iimik hangga’t hindi nila iniimbestigahan, at bibigyan tayo ng final report nila. Kasi may diplomatic protest tayo eh, they will respond to that formally; and we are waiting for that.

ESGUERRA: I think the difference here is that, while the Philippine government is following all the protocols, being very, very safe when it comes to following the procedures of investigation, you already have this version coming from China which a lot of people find quote incredulous because, number one, how could the Chinese, the mighty Chinese, given their context of having a maritime militia could be besieged by Filipino boats? I think that’s where a lot of criticism is coming from.

SEC. PANELO: Well, hindi nga natin malaman kung anong basis nila, kasi if you remember, sinasabi natin na nag-iisa lang naman iyong ship natin doon o iyong vessel natin. Pero lumalabas na iyong pa lang mother vessel ng mga fishermen, maraming mga bangka doon. So noong nagkaroon ng aksidente, nagkalat ngayon iyong mga bangka doon. So ano ang naging perception nila? Hindi natin alam kung natakot sila roon dahil maraming bangka doon. Kaya nga ibig nating maimbestigahan exactly gaano ba karami ang bangka doon at kung natakot man sila ay iyan ang kanilang claim. Mayroon bang nakasakay sa mga bangka? Iyon ang mga facts na we have to determine para sigurado kapag gumalaw tayo ay eksakto, eksaktong tama.

ESGUERRA: Okay. Now, finally, Secretary Panelo, a lot of people are asking, why does the President keep on raising the issue of the possibility of going to war with China whenever something like this happens? For example, whenever there is a conflict. Who says that the President was being encouraged to go to war with China by making him issue stronger statements against China? I think there’s a lot of room to negotiate and not to use that either/or proposition, war or peace proposition.

SEC. PANELO: Alam mo si Presidente, when he is saying to us is “I want to avoid any conflict with any country. Ayaw kong ma-develop ang insidente na maging problema natin at maapektuhan – kung magkaroon man ng gulo – ang ating mga kababayan.” Iyon ang kaniyang paramount interest in mind: the safety of our countrymen. Kaya siya maingat diyan eh.

ESGUERRA: Again, but who says that we are going to wage war with China?

SEC. PANELO: Eh sino ba nagsabi rin sa parte ng mga Chinese na hindi sila pupunta sa giyera kung ma-provoke sila? Nobody knows that. Pero si Presidente, like a good lawyer, ina-anticipate niya iyong gagawin ng kalaban. Kumbaga sa chess, inuunahan, pini-preempt na niya na huwag dumating doon sa sitwasyon na iyon.

ESGUERRA: Okay. Well, thank you very much for joining us this morning. And thank you for answering our questions Secretary Salvador Panelo, who is also the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel. Thank you, sir.

SEC. PANELO: Thank you, Christian, for having me.


SOURCE: PCOO-NIB (News and Information Bureau)