A SPAT on social media should be an occasion for presidential intervention. But when Special Assistant to the President Christopher Go appeared before a briefing in the Palace to inform the press that President Rodrigo Duterte had asked him to apologize to media celebrity Kris Aquino, and ordered Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson to do the same, the die was cast.
Sadly, the results were not too good for the President, who emerged from the kerfuffle looking indecisive and namby-pamby.
At the center of the controversy was Uson's use of a video of the late senator Benigno Aquino Jr.—Kris Aquino's father—receiving a kiss from two women on board a plane before he was assassinated in 1983. Uson used the video to defend Duterte, who was criticized for soliciting a kiss from a woman who attended his meeting with the Filipino community in South Korea.
Aquino lashed out at Uson for disrespecting her father in a Facebook video of her own—and got an apology from the Palace the next day.
Had Uson followed orders, that would have been the end of that—but she didn't.
In a video posted on her Facebook page, Uson said in Filipino: "This is not about Kris Aquino. This is about putting malice in a kiss. It was simply compared to the actions of other leaders like her father." In another post, she refused "to apologize for the truth."
In one fell swoop, Uson accomplished two things: 1) she defied the President; and 2) she showed ultimate confidence that she could do anything she wanted without consequences. Ironically, in defending the President, she simply made him look weak.
The President's response—invoking Uson's constitutional right to free expression —did not help.
"As I respect the opposition, I must also respect my camp. She has invoked the right of free expression," he said. "Once you invoke that, I can't do anything.... It's your right to criticize me.
Duterte said he had apologized because Uson "works for me in Malaca ñang."
We applaud the President's defense of free expression, but that is clearly not the issue at hand.
If it were, the President should not have fired the Dangerous Drugs Board chairman Dionisio Santiago for "blabbering" before media in November 2017. Was it not also Santiago's constitutional right to speak his mind?
If Assistant Secretary Uson had gone on her Facebook page and called the President weak because he would not or could not discipline her, or compel her to follow his orders, would we still be getting a civics lesson on free speech?
She did not do this, of course, but this is the conclusion her actions will lead people to reach.
The President is correct, of course. We all can speak our minds. But if you are the President of this country, shouldn't your subordinates follow your orders without question, regardless of this right? And if they cannot or will not do this, isn't it a President's prerogative to discipline—or even fire—a recalcitrant employee?