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Duterte verbal orders: Designed to protect himself? | CMFR

Duterte verbal orders: Designed to protect himself?

Photo from pcoo.gov.ph.


JUST HOURS after President Rodrigo Duterte had received information about alleged corruption in the Philippine Charity Sweepstake Office (PCSO), he ordered its gaming operations shut down. PCSO General Manager Royina Garma informed him of alleged irregularities on July 26.

Despite the absence of any written directive, the order was enough for Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Oscar Albayalde to promptly implement the order, making a big show of policemen shutting down Lotto outlets, an activity reported in the media. Reports asked about the impact of the four-day closure of over 30,000 PCSO-operated outlets nationwide and its effect on at least 120,000 employees. The principal fund-raising agency for health programs also lost some PHP250 million in revenues. 

Journalists did follow up as critics and other media personalities questioned the lack of due process in the implementation of Duterte’s order, noting the absence of any evidence of a “grand conspiracy” of corruption which included the lotto outlets. 

In the president’s defense, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra argued that media coverage served as “enough record of a presidential order.” But a report by online news site Rappler’s Lian Buan discussed the legal issues, pointing out that in ordinary court proceedings, news reports are generally regarded as hearsay evidence.

Guevarra also invoked police power as the legal basis for the shutdown order. According to the report, while there are no explicit provisions in the Constitution about police power, previous Supreme Court (SC) decisions have referred to it as the “state authority to enact legislation that may interfere with personal liberty or property in order to promote general welfare.” The implementation of the closure was done, without any written executive order or legislation. 

The order shutting down PCSO’s gaming operations was the most recent in a long list of verbal orders from the president that his administration turned into policy through active implementation. 

Pattern of issuing verbal orders 

  • Arrest of NDFP consultants

In February 2017, the president issued a verbal order to arrest consultants of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) peace panel.

A day after, former PNP Chief Ronald dela Rosa ordered the arrest of at least 13 NDFP consultants. The alternative news site Bulatlat cited Edre Olalia, NDFP peace panel legal consultant, who said there was no legal basis for dela Rosa’s order. 

  • War on drugs

Dela Rosa’s Command Memorandum Circular (CMC) No. 16-2016, which operationalized the war on drugs, did not cite any official written order from the president. During a Senate hearing in August 2017, dela Rosa confirmed it when he said that “…personally, I have no orders to launch the operations but our operating units were taking the cue from the words of the President that our anti-drug operation is unrelenting.”

  • MIASCOR contract termination

Early in 2018, Duterte ordered airport and transport officials to clear the airport of thieves who were victimizing returning Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). The following day, the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA), terminated its contract with airport service provider MIASCOR Ground Handling Corporation following a luggage theft incident at the Clark International Airport in Pampanga.

  • Sereno impeachment

In April 2018, the president publicly declared that he wanted the Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno removed from office and ordered the House of Representatives to expedite the latter’s impeachment. 

The following month, the SC, voting 8-6 upheld Solicitor General Jose Calida’s quo warranto petition and effectively ruled to remove Sereno as Chief Justice.

Other orders

Rappler’s Pia Ranada listed other Duterte orders that were not supported by any document. Among them were the Anti-Tambay (loitering) order, the closure of Boracay to tourists, the threat to arrest Kapa Community Ministry leaders, the arrest of the WellMed owner in connection with the alleged PhilHealth scam, his fishing deal with China’s President Xi Jinping, and the ban on Rappler reporters’ covering events in which Duterte is present . 

Professor Ela Atienza, head of the political science department of the University of the Philippines explained that written orders are necessary to make decisions official. “If not written, it is easy to deny that he gave orders,” Atienza said.

There are other dangers as well, as any public official can interpret the verbal order and set the parameters without further consultation with other authorities. 

Observing legal process 

According to EO 292, which implements the Administrative Code of 1987, a government official cannot be held accountable for any wrongful acts or negligence by his subordinates “unless he has actually authorized by written order the specific act or misconduct complained of.”

The president is a lawyer. And yet he has shown little regard for legal niceties, and his supporters often describe this style as a demonstration of political will. But there may be more than meets the eye in this careless or carefree habit of keeping his orders verbal. 

Far from being merely careless, the practice may be designed to protect the chief executive from the consequences of these actions, limiting his accountability and providing him with impunity for lawless orders.  

Duterte has publicly ordered the killing of bishops, corrupt government officials, drug pushers and communist rebels. Words come easy to this loquacious if often incoherent president. In failing to issue the required written order, is he only out to protect himself from civil or criminal liability?

Public officials should take care and beware as they alone may have to answer for the actions they think are backed by the chief executive’s orders.