Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque has clarified President Rodrigo Duterte's apparent gag order on Cabinet members in relation to publicly discussing the West Philippine Sea issue.
Duterte, on Monday, May 17, had said in a mix of English and Filipino, "This is my order now to the Cabinet and to all and sundry, talking for the government to refrain discussing this West Philippine Sea with anybody."
"If we have to talk, we talk and tayo-tayo lang (just within our circle), and there is one spokesman – Secretary Harry will do it," the President added during a meeting with Cabinet members in Malacañang Golf Clubhouse.
On Tuesday, Roque clarified that Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr is still allowed to speak about the West Philippine Sea since it is part of foreign policy.
"The instruction of the President was clear. Only the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and myself can speak on the issue now," said Roque during a Palace news briefing.
This means the gag order covers all other Cabinet members, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, who've been known to speak about the West Philippine Sea in the past.
Lorenzana, who had been very vocal against the continued presence of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea, is yet to reply to Rappler's request for comment on whether he too understood the President's order this way.
Rappler asked on Tuesday if the gag order covered reports that the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) releases to the public on Chinese ships spotted by the military and Philippine Coast Guard in various parts of the West Philippine Sea.
Roque said these could be covered by the gag order since the NTF-WPS reports are often used as bases for the filing of diplomatic protests against China by the DFA.
"These are matters, facts which are relative to diplomatic communications covered by executive privilege so although there is transparency, an exception to transparency are diplomatic communications and that includes also inputs which form the basis of diplomatic communications," said Duterte's spokesperson.
Public reports of the NTF-WPS, a task force under the Office of the President, have helped educate the public about the real situation in the West Philippine Sea even as Malacañang insists that the President's strategy with China has benefited Filipino fishermen and is effective in protecting Philippine waters.
"I don't see any tension in the West Philippine Sea," said Roque in Filipino.
"The tension is created by critics in the Philippines. Outside the Philippines, we know there's a problem but there’s no tension like the one in Scarborough Shoal," he added.
The NTF-WPS has reported that there were still 287 Chinese Maritime Militia ships scattered in the West Philippine Sea, as of May 9. A few days later, on May 12, Chinese coast guard ships shadowed and challenged the vessels of the Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources near Scarborough Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc.
Duterte's Monday order to the Cabinet is his second order on careful wording in matters relating to China in two weeks. In early May, Duterte had also ordered Cabinet members not to use curse words when speaking about diplomatic concerns. This came after Locsin tweeted expletives directed at China over Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea.
Meanwhile Roque, a Cabinet member not covered by the gag order, has been corrected even by other government agencies after falsely claiming that Julian Felipe Reef is not within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
Roque's statements had earlier prompted Locsin to reiterate that only the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) should speak on the country’s foreign policy, including issues related to China. (READ: Locsin to Roque: Leave foreign affairs matters to me)
Duterte himself has stirred controversy for claiming that China is "in possession" of the West Philippine Sea and likening the 2016 Hague ruling to a piece of paper to be discarded. Members of the academe, retired soldiers, even Duterte's own fellow San Bedan alumni have called on him to retract his statements. – Rappler.com