Duterte and LeniLeaks: Much Ado About Nothing?

Was the Philippines’ vice president really trying to overthrow Duterte?

Duterte and LeniLeaks: Much Ado About Nothing?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If one is to take anything from 2016, it is that if you want to say something controversial, don’t write it down in an email. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats showed us why.

Last month in the Philippines, a leaked email thread on Yahoo! Groups sparked controversy when it was purportedly, and wrongly, said to show that the staff of Vice President Leni Robredo was plotting to oust President Rodrigo Duterte. This has become known by the hashtag #LeniLeaks.

The details of the case are complex and for an in-depth look at what the messages actually said, I would suggest this Rappler article. But here are the basics. In January, conversations on the Yahoo! Group of the Global Filipino Diaspora Council were leaked on social media by pro-Duterte bloggers.

The conversations were between a number of U.S.-based Filipinos, including philanthropist Loida Nicolas-Lewis, and some in the Philippines. On January 4, Nicolas-Lewis’ sister appears to have shared a private Facebook message she received, rumored to be from someone in the Office of the Vice President’s Social Media Team. Much of the discussions were about how to discredit Duterte, especially around his decision to allow the burial of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and how to oppose his rule.

The political analyst Ramon Casiple opined that, rather than being a plot to oust Duterte, the messages showed ordinary campaign planning. Indeed, there was no mention of the military, whose participation is one of the most important prerequisites for a coup in the Philippines.

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Robredo distanced herself and her staff from the emails, and said that she last spoke to Nicolas-Lewis when campaigning early last year. Suspicion had quickly fallen on her because of her frayed relationship with Duterte, which led her to resign from his cabinet last year (the two recently had their first meeting since the incident at the presidential palace).

Nicolas-Lewis has defended herself as well, also saying that the “Duterte Resign Movement” she is associated with is not a movement to overthrow the president but a movement to hold the president to his own promises: he had announced that he would “resign if drugs are still rampant six months after his inauguration.” Judging by the recent hiccups in the “war on drugs,” which he admitted this week, just under a year into his presidency, that problem does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

In any case, alleged plots to topple Duterte are hardly new. Just three months into the job, in September, senators were warning that Antonio Trillanes, a staunch critic and former naval officer, who served seven years in prison for attempted coups against former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, might be fomenting dissent among the military ranks. A few month later, the Armed Forces of the Philippines announced it was investigating more coup plots.

Indeed, Duterte has been keenly aware of how combustive the military can be. In the 21st century alone, alleged military coups were attempted in November 2007, February 2006, July 2003, and January 2001. To avert disaffection among the soldiering ranks, not long into his presidency Duterte promised to double troop salaries, improve health care for soldiers, and secure modern equipment.

On January 2, Guy Taylor of the Washington Post published an extensive article looking into the possible fallout of improved relations between the Philippines and China. Under Duterte, the Philippines has moved further away from the United States, with scrutiny on the U.S. military presence there.

If Duterte allows Chinese military access to its airstrips and ports, “the question is will the Philippine military, which is pro-American and already wary of Duterte’s flirtation with China, allow that, and whether a Trump presidency would perhaps condone a coup to overthrow Duterte if things turn so drastic,” John Blaxland, a former Australian military intelligence official and now professor at the Australian National University, told the Washington Post.

Furthermore, in December, the Manila Times claimed a “highly placed source” told the newspaper that the recently departed U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, had prepared a “blueprint to undermine Duterte.” This allegedly included plans to boost the opposition, co-opt the media and military, and turn neighboring countries against the president. The allegations were made in two articles written by the Manila Times’ publisher, Dante Ang II, and fingered former President Fidel Ramos as the suspected frontman of the plotters.

Duterte’s dislike of Goldberg was rarely concealed: he once called him a “gay son of a bitch.” Goldberg was expelled as ambassador to Bolivia in 2008 by then-President Evo Morales on similar accusations of undermining the administration.

Despite the U.S. State Department calling these allegations “false,” and Duterte’s own admission that he had not read any intelligence reports of U.S. plans to topple him, the president derided U.S. ambassadors as “spies” and said most envoys were in cahoots with the CIA. He said in a television interview: “The ambassador of a country is the number one spy. But there are ambassador[s] of the U.S., their forte is really to undermine governments.”

But what will be the effect of all the talk of coup plotting on the way Duterte rules? If the Malacañang Palace is seriously concerned about a seizure of power, it would do better to focus on what is happening within the military, and how Duterte’s decisions on relations with China and the U.S. could be the real harbinger of dissent. The LeniLeaks are mere gossip compared to this threat.

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Yet this is gossip that is being taken seriously. A number cabinet ministers did say there were more important things to focus on than these messages, but Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar told the press that the Malacañang Palace is looking into the matter.

“If we find out that they are really part of this scheme, we will go after you. If you are in the America [sic], enjoying the cold winter nights of the United States in New York City or wherever you are, just make sure that when you come home to the Philippines that you are ready to face the music,” he said.

An investigation is believed to be being conducted by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon and Information and Communication Technology Secretary Rodolfo Salalima, which could lead to charges being filed against those alleged to have been behind the “plot.”

But, given that there is little in the way of outright calls for Duterte’s ousting included in the messages, aren’t they permissible in a country that is said to honor free expression? Human rights lawyer and congressman Edcel Lagman thinks so.

“The emails are in exercise of the freedom of expression and are protected by the Bill of Rights as an essential component of democratic space,” he said. “If the president’s men believe that Duterte is rendering fealty to his mandate, then their phobia of his impending ouster is grossly misplaced and is conveniently used as a pretext to discourage and censure critical dissent.”

Indeed, the concern is that they might provide the pretext for Duterte to crackdown on free expression by opposition groups.

It should be said that Duterte’s stance on free speech is rather hazy. After a deluge of  controversial speeches made during his presidential campaign, such as his “joke” about wanting to be the first in the gang-rape of an Australian lay missionary, he told his critics that they shouldn’t curtail his freedom of speech.

This led to the bizarre situation of the country’s Commission on Human Rights responding that freedom of speech is not absolute – a rather wretched argument for a human rights group to take. Either freedom of speech is absolute or it doesn’t exist.

Though he might have invoked free-speech to defend himself, Duterte hasn’t been so keen on extending such rights to others.

Weeks before his inauguration, he said that “corrupt” journalists were a legitimate target of assassination. “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch,” said the president.

Only this month, the website of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines was hacked into and shut down by the “enemies of press freedom and of free expression,” as the organization put it. It remains unclear who committed the cyber attack, though the NUJP has had its fair share of run-ins with Duterte and his staff in the past year.

It seems unlikely, however, that this controversy will bring about any real change in free-speech laws or practices in the Philippines. Instead, Duterte might use it to deflect criticism of his presidency.

The “LeniLeaks” links to U.S.-based groups, and the alleged blueprint by Philip Goldberg, will allow Duterte to say foreign powers are trying to interfere with the Philippines’ national affairs, adding to his continuous use of the “national sovereignty” card, which he has expertly played to build consensus around his administration, to palm off concerns about human rights as foreign concerns, and to win support from those who might have ordinarily opposed his rule.

On January 10, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. made the official line clear. Writing on Facebook, he said that anyone plotting a coup — perhaps a not-so-subtle nod to Leni Robredo — is a “despicable traitor and an enemy of the state.”