Activists burn an effigy of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte near the US Embassy in Manila on November 30, 2018, Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

In the run-up to crucial midterm elections, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has accused his media and civil society critics of plotting to overthrow his government, a politically charged accusation that some fear could presage a severe new crackdown on dissent.

The alleged plot, first published in the Manila Times newspaper and likely based on information provided by the President’s Office, involves journalists who have allegedly attempted to “manipulate public emotion, touch base with the Leftist organization, enlist the support of the police and the military, then go for the ‘kill’ [of overthrowing Duterte].”

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo backed the validity of the conspiracy diagram published by Manila Times’ owner Dante Ang, a known Duterte ally and advisor, which exposed an alleged “matrix” of progressive groups and media personalities involved in an anti-government plot.

The spokesman claimed that the “Oust Duterte” matrix corroborates the president’s own intelligence findings, without elaborating.
“The source of that is from the Office of the President. It’s from the President himself,” Panelo said on April 22 during a press briefing. “I was supposed to release it [separately] today,” he added, implying that there was no coordination with the Manila Times report.

In particular, the diagram accuses leading journalistic outlets such as Rappler, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Vera Files, as well as the left-leaning National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), which counts prominent opposition senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares among its ranks.

The accused journalists and lawyers have flatly rejected the matrix and related conspiracy as “a lie” intended to intimidate government critics and distract public attention from potential illicit activities by the presidential family and its closest allies ahead of hotly key elections next month.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Davao City, in the southern island of Mindanao, February 9, 2018. Photo: AFP

PCIJ lashed out at the plot accusation for being “wrong on many points” and constituting a violation of the named journalists’ privacy.

“It offers tacit admission that these ‘experts,’ apparently working with the Office of the President had invaded the privacy of the emails and correspondence of journalists now being singled out,” the investigative organization said, questioning the legality of the report in an April 22 public statement.

Colmenares, meanwhile, threatened to sue the government on behalf of the NUPL. “It is an option on our part, collectively or individually, to file legal cases against those who are responsible for this latest script that is absurd, funny, hilarious, if not life-threatening to those whose names are listed in the matrix,” he said.

The conspiracy claim came days after the circulation of a series of videos entitled “Ang Totoong Narcolist”, or “the real narco list”, by an anonymous source known as “Bikoy.” The videos accuse the presidential family of years-long collaboration with Davao-based and international drug syndicates, including from China.

The anonymous source claims to be a former member of a drug syndicate with personal knowledge of the Duterte family’s alleged history of involvement in the illicit trade. He zeroed in in particular on Duterte’s son, Paolo Duterte, and his long-time personal assistant and senatorial candidate Bong Go.

Last year, Paolo Duterte resigned from his vice mayor position in Davao amid Senate investigations into his alleged involvement in the drug trade and ties with drug syndicates. He has consistently and strongly denied the accusations. In September 2017, Duterte told police to “kill” his son if the drug trafficking allegations were proven true.

Paolo Duterte, Davao’s Vice Mayor and son of President Rodrigo Duterte, testifies at a Senate hearing on drug smuggling in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines, on September 7, 2017. Photo: Twitter

Still, the viral videos have undermined certain confidence in the tough-talking president, who has placed a scorched earth drug war at the heart of his policy agenda. Rights groups estimate as many as 16,000 suspects have been killed in the campaign.

His critics accuse him of not only widespread human rights violations, some of which have been taken up by International Criminal Court investigators, but also of a systematic cover up of the real roots of the country’s rampant and lucrative drug trade.

Certain opposition members have accused Duterte of orchestrating the drug war in order to conceal his family’s involvement in the illicit business as well as eliminate any competition. Duterte and his family members have steadfastly denied the unproven claims.

Enraged by the “Bikoy” videos, the president has apparently struck back with his own accusation of a coup plot against his perceived political enemies, which if proven could justify their incarceration on treason or other anti-state charges.

Significantly, Philippine security forces have been quick to question the veracity of Duterte’s and The Manila Times’ report of a conspiracy.

“There is always that possibility about groups wanting to oust him, but as of now we have not seen any specific threats likely to succeed to oust the president,” Armed Forces of the Philippines public affairs chief Colonel Noel Detoyato said on April 22.

Even the Philippine National Police (PNP), which has been largely subservient to the president and a key actor in implementing his controversial drug war, has been openly skeptical of the supposed plot.

“As of this time, we don’t have specific evidence on that,” PNP chief General Oscar Albayalde said. “But the police will always be on their toes, regardless of whether there is an ouster plot or not.”

Davao City mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio makes a point. Photo: Facebook

Duterte’s own daughter, Davao City mayor Sara Duterte, has also questioned the veracity of the alleged conspiracy to topple her father’s government.

“I don’t know if there has been a concerted effort, but let’s give the media entity the benefit of the doubt on what they choose to report and deem as deserving of coverage for the people” she said.

Vice President Leni Robredo, Duterte’s top political opponent, echoed that assessment. “This is the second matrix: if you remember, in the first destabilization matrix, I was included. And it wasn’t true.”

In 2018, Robredo, a lawyer and former social activist, was accused of involvement in a supposed conspiracy with leading businessmen to topple Duterte’s government and catapult her to power.

The list was circulated by Duterte’s son, Paolo, who at the time was facing accusations pursued by the Senate of his involvement in the drug trade. No action was taken against those identified on that plot list.

But with next month’s pivotal mid-term elections many seen as a de facto referendum on Duterte’s nearly three years in office, there are concerns the latest allegation could be leveraged to justify a clampdown to quiet rising anti-government criticism.

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