Ernesto Abella, the man who speaks for President Duterte

Pia Ranada
Ernesto Abella, the man who speaks for President Duterte
The unassuming Ernie Abella faces the challenge of imparting the 'true intentions' of the unpredictable President Rodrigo Duterte

MANILA, Philippines – Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella’s office in Malacañang is bare and blank.

The gray walls are bereft of any portraits or photos. His wooden desk, flanked by two black minimalist chairs, is topped only by his laptop and a few papers. Plus a low cabinet, these are the only furniture in the room.

“It’s quite monastic, don’t you think? Just like me,” Abella says in his characteristic baritone voice as he gestures me to one of the chairs.

The spokesman of one of the Philippines’ most exciting presidents is two weeks into his new job. Looking around his work space, one can’t help but agree with Abella’s comparison. 

Abella is as unassuming as his office, despite being the “alter-ego” of a bombastic leader. His statements in press briefings are safe, some might even say bland. He keeps his answers short, never giving away too much, perhaps saying too little. 

Like a Boy Scout carefully toeing the line, he clarifies and qualifies his responses to pressing questions of the day. Among his favorite phrases are, “Let’s just say” and “Let’s put it this way.”

About the only thing that catches attention about Ernie Abella is his deep voice, worthy of the podium and of impressive oratory exercise – not surprising considering he used to be a pastor. 

That voice has been the voice of President Duterte for the past two weeks. Already, Abella has had to speak for the President on issues like his controversial war on drugs, his sensational description of the Abu Sayyaf, and the administration’s take on the historic West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) ruling. 

Abella’s role is even more crucial as Duterte continues to make good on his promise not to take questions from private media. 

Abella’s Malacañang press conferences are thus the only platform where independent media can interact with Duterte’s office. 

What is it like speaking for President Duterte? What role does Abella see himself taking as the “moderator” between the Duterte administration and private media?

Completing Duterte’s sentences 

When Duterte sat Abella down to orient him on his new role, he had only one marching order.

“He said, ‘The spokesperson is my conduit from the presidency to the people through the press,’” said Abella.

My job is basically to be able to impart [Duterte’s] true intentions.

– Ernesto Abella

 

His first press conference on June 13 was around the time Duterte, then president-elect, became evasive with independent media. Abella’s first job was to announce appointments of Duterte’s health, tourism, and trade secretaries.

Duterte told him he needed someone to speak for him because he had lost trust in the media. 

“He felt that some of his statements were being taken out of context and I think he found himself spending a lot of time explaining himself,” said Abella. 

For Abella, his job description is simple.

“My job is basically to be able to impart his true intentions,” he said.

But this is not as easy as it sounds. Duterte is unpredictable – one can never tell when he will drop a bombshell, as he did when he announced the names of 5 allegedly drug-tainted police generals during the Philippine Air Force anniversary.

As the press knows all too well, he frequently gives “outrageous” statements which could or could not contain a grain of truth.

Often, the press and the public at large are left to fathom his true intentions under layers of contradictory comments, humor, and innuendo. 

Then there are the moments when the Bisaya-speaking Duterte gets lost in translation when speaking in Tagalog.

Abella appreciates the challenge he faces. One habit of Duterte that makes his job extra tricky is when “he doesn’t complete sentences,” said Abella.

In these situations, Abella often depends on his stock knowledge of Duterte, whom he has known for 20 years, ever since Duterte helped facilitate his release from a bandit group in 1996. Abella gleans from Duterte’s insights shared during Cabinet meeting discussions or their informal conversations with each other. 

“Spending more and more time with him, I get him. I think I know what he’s saying. He hasn’t really corrected me in any items so I’m assuming that, so far, salamat sa Diyos (thank God), he has been properly represented,” said Abella. 

The first major “miscommunication” issue Abella handled was Duterte’s declaration that he does not consider the Abu Sayyaf criminals.

The remark was unprecedented for a Philippine president since the notorious group has always been recognized as bandits accountable for numerous cases of terror attacks, kidnap-for-ransom, and other crimes.

The following morning, Abella clarified that Duterte was “not condoning actions” of the group but was merely “providing context” for their actions.

Duterte did not brief Abella on how to clarify his statement. Abella said he was only able to explain Duterte’s intention aptly because he was at the event where the controversial remark was made. 

So to do his job well, he has to be “at the right place at the right time.”

“It’s necessary for me to be there to listen. Kaya minsan pinagtutulakan ko na sarili ko (Sometimes I have to push myself) just to be there. I have to find my way. Pare-pareho tayo (We go through the same experience),” he said, likening himself to independent media who trail Duterte in order to catch every remark of public interest.

“I wish I was there all the time. I wish I was a shadow,” he mused. 

Tabula rasa 

Abella said his experience as a pastor has also helped him communicate the ideas of the President. Before he was a pastor for the Born Again Charismatics, Abella worked in advertising as a copywriter, then as an instructor in humanities and communication arts.

“Being exposed to people, being exposed to different personalities, different value systems, in a sense, it has become easier for me to read people, kung saan sila nanggagaling, kung saan sila humuhugot (where they are coming from, where they derive their passions),” he said. 

This comes in handy when “reading” someone like Rody Duterte.

“If you really study the president, malalim ang hugot niya (he is coming from a very deep, very personal place). He comes from a very, very deep place,” said Abella.

FACING MEDIA. Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella drops by the Press Working Area for Malacañang reporters. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

Part of the challenge of staying on-message is keeping his personality out of the picture, one reason Duterte might have had for choosing the unassuming Abella for the job.

“It’s a discipline na hindi ko itutulak ang personalidad ko (It’s a discipline not to force my personality into the messaging),” admitted Abella. 

“My personality does not come into play in a very real sense. When people ask me for my opinion, comments, that’s not part of my job, to give opinions,” he said.

It’s not surprising Duterte would want such a man to speak for him. His presidential campaign was marred by at least 3 major miscommunication issues rooted in spokesmen imposing their own interpretations of his statements or decisions. 

The first was when one of the campaign’s communication teams sent out press releases claiming the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) account cited by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV as being Duterte’s was non-existent. Later on, Duterte admitted it did exist.

The second was Duterte’s supposed “apology letter” for his controversial rape remark, a letter which he later denied was an apology.

The third was when spokesmen of his “transition team” claimed Duterte wanted to have a Cabinet similar in youth and diversity to that of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Duterte said no such thing.

By simply being a blank slate, Abella believes he is best able to fulfill his task of “clearing the air of noise and misunderstandings.”

He may not spew out the juicy soundbites, but at least he’s not saying more than he should.

The go-between

But Abella is more than a mirror reflecting Duterte’s public persona. He is the go-between, the moderator, the referee between the President and the media. 

There’s one hitch: the ball remains on one side of the court. Duterte has vowed not to give any press conferences until the end of his term. He said he would course his public statements through state-run channel PTV4. 

Though the most virulent of Duterte supporters laud the move as an outsmarting of the supposedly “biased” media, society has lost a feedback mechanism between the one in power and those who watch over power. 

He listens. He really engages the secretaries in conversation.

– Ernesto Abella

 

Abella knows this and wants to bridge the gap. He is considering alternative venues like social media where questions, concerns, or comments for the President can be sent.

“I’m trying to find a venue like maybe social media where you can actually keep plugging your questions, then as soon as we can, we’ll also feed or get the appropriate footage to answer the question,” he said.

But it’s not clear if the social media platform will accept questions from all netizens or if there will be a similar platform just for independent media. 

All Abella is sure of is that social media is the “future” of communication and that Duterte has captivated the perpetually online millennial generation.

Abella himself gets news from online feeds and even used to maintain a blog. 

But will independent media play a role in the Duterte presidency given the cold-shoulder treatment?

Abella said the last thing his office wants to do is to shut independent media out. 

“What I’m trying to do right now is bringing the two together as close as possible – closer and closer until such time as the space is more comfortable. Of course, I’d like both parties to be comfortable with one another,” he said.

In the meantime, Abella said he has to respect Duterte’s decision.

Conversations

Reporters covering Malacañang make do with Abella’s concise explanations of Duterte’s statements and decisions.

He said he takes “voluminous” notes during Cabinet meetings in order to understand the issues that may be brought up during a press conference. He also goes through the summaries released after the meetings.

Abella described these meetings as “long.” In keeping with Duterte’s preferred working hours, Cabinet meetings often happen after lunch or in the evening. They tend to end late at night or even early in the morning. 

“They take long. Why? He listens. He really engages the secretaries in conversation,” he said.

For instance, during the Cabinet meeting right after the release of the historic West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) ruling, Duterte did not set time limits despite the number of comments being raised.

Acting as moderator, Duterte would remark at the end, “Okay, we will take note of that” or else would stay silent, leaving the others at the table to fathom what he was thinking. 

Because of the length and supposed depth of discussion during Cabinet meetings, Abella said the statements he gives to media are properly “processed.”

“It was not sanitized but processed, discussed. In other words, you’re not getting crumbs, you’re getting meat, deboned lang (but deboned),” he said with a chuckle.

Of course, nothing compares in candor to the no-holds-barred press conferences Duterte himself used to give to independent media. But for now, Abella’s statements and those of other Cabinet secretaries will have to do. 

Given this state of affairs, Abella’s future goal for his job as presidential spokesman is heartening and daunting at the same time. 

“For me I’d like to develop what I call ‘conversations.’ Bring in everybody, as many people as possible, to be able to speak on issues, and also hear from the President,” he said. 

It’s a tall order given the demands of the presidency and Duterte’s grudge with the media. 

“I want to lessen that space, but let’s take it one by one. For me, hope springs eternal.” – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.