Palace tags journalists, lawyers in alleged ouster plot vs. Duterte; PNP, AFP deny destabilization plan

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 22) — The government on Monday claimed there is an ongoing ouster plot against President Rodrigo Duterte that is backed by journalists, news-related organizations, and lawyers critical of his administration.

Journalists and a lawyers' group named among those supposedly involved immediately denied the allegations, with one dismissing them as "hilarious."

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo revealed the matrix of those involved in the plan to unseat Duterte. The matrix’s alleged starting point is "Bikoy," the anonymous man who tagged Duterte's children and former aide in the illegal drug trade. Bikoy claims to be a former drug syndicate operator.

It then leads to the name of veteran journalist and blogger Ellen Tordesillas. Malacañang claimed Tordesillas sent Bikoy's videos to media outfits Rappler and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). The nonprofit organization recently came out with a series of reports on the Duterte family’s alleged sudden rise in income. Tordesillas also allegedly sent the information from Bikoy to the National Union of People’s Lawyer (NUPL), the group that filed a complaint against Duterte before the International Criminal Court. The matrix also included fact-checking group VERA Files.

Panelo said he received an order from Duterte to release the matrix.

"Ang ibig sabihin, the source is Bikoy. Gumawa siya ng fake news… Pinadala niya kay Tordesillas. Pinadala naman ni Tordesillas sa tatlo, tapos kinalat na nila. 'Yun lang naman ang ibig sabihin nito eh," he said in a media briefing.

He said those in the matrix want to destroy the government’s credibility, which could jumpstart an administration's fall.

Matrix validation

Duterte earlier said he had intelligence information on those behind Bikoy's videos — information that came from an unnamed foreign country. Panelo said only Duterte knows which country was involved in gathering the information. Through monitored phone conversations in the country, Malacañang said the matrix has been validated.

"What you did not know is that you are being listened to habang ginagawa ninyo 'yang mga kalokohan niyo… It was an intelligence report not from us but from another country," Panelo said.

Philippine laws prohibit wiretapping, but for the Palace, that is not even an issue.

"'Yan ang tinatawag na sharing of intelligence information. That’s standard for all countries if it affects security of a particular country," Panelo said.

Despite the supposed intelligence gathering, Malacañang still has no information on who is behind the videos and allegations released by Bikoy.

Security forces however said there is no clear evidence that will link the journalists to any ouster plot.

“As of this time, we don't have specific evidence on that," Philippine National Police Chief Police General Oscar Albayalde said on Monday.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines also echoed that there is no information to back the claim of the Palace.

"Sa ngayon there is no specific threat tayo na nakikita," AFP Public Affairs Chief Colonel Noel Detoyato said.

Journalists, lawyers fight back

Tordesillas called the allegation linking her and her media organization Vera Files to the supposed destabilization plot as "downright false" and "hilarious."

She also questioned the vetting the matrix has gone through before it was released to the public.

"What I find disturbing is, if this is the kind of intelligence report that the President gets and bases his actions and policies on, the country is in big trouble," said Tordesillas, the President of VERA Files.

Luz Rimban, among those tagged in the alleged destabilization plot, said she has not been connected with Vera Files since April 2018 and has been working as executive director of the Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University.

The PCIJ, which was also tagged in the alleged plan, said three individuals identified with them in the matrix have resigned between March 2018 and January 2019. They include Otso Diretso senatorial candidate Chel Diokno and Summit Media publisher Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng, who previously sat in the PCIJ's Board of Editors.

The PCIJ also denied having ever received any e-mail from Tordesillas on the Bikoy videos. It added that the Manila Times story where the alleged ouster plot was first revealed admits that a crime may have been committed and the privacy of journalists may have been violated.

"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 PCIJ said.

Journalist Inday Espina Varona, who was shown in the matrix as part of the NUPL, is not a lawyer. "My former employer just promoted this University of the Philippines dropout to lawyer. Journalist to lawyer. Just on those glaring errors of fact, that article fails big time," said Varona, who was once an editor for The Manila Times.

The NUPL said they are being tagged in the supposed ouster plot for their criticisms against Duterte and his actions against drug suspects and members of the church. They remain unfazed.

"We will not blink nor look the other way. We are unfazed even as we are disturbed. Criticism is not ousting. Lawyering is not destabilizing," its national executive board said in a statement.

Rappler's CEO Maria Ressa, who was also named in the matrix, in a tweet said "it's bad when the government lies through its paid PR to manipulate the people," She said it's been years since she and Tordesillas emailed each other.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said the publication of the alleged ouster plot "lays the ground for more attacks against independent media."

Panelo said they are free to file libel charges against the government.

CNN Philippines senior correspondent Ina Andolong contributed to this report.