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Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he answers questions from reporters at the University of the Philippines in suburban Quezon city, north of Manila, Philippines, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Five candidates are running for President in the coming elections this May
AP Photo/Aaron Favila
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Duterte saying he personally killed people is apparently just another thing you shouldn’t take “literally”

Therese Reyes
By Therese Reyes

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s latest controversial statement was an admission that he personally killed drug suspects when he was mayor of Davao City. Once again, his communications secretary Martin Andanar was quick to take it back.

“I reviewed the tape. He didn’t say he personally killed. He said he goes around looking for an encounter,” Andanar said, despite the fact the video he was referring to also has Duterte saying: ”In Davao I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys [police] that if I can do it why can’t you.” During a BBC interview, Andanar explained that people should take the president’s statements “seriously but not literally.”

Jess Dureza, the presidential advisor for peace negotiations had similar advice during a diplomatic briefing in New York in early December. “Don’t take him by his word. He’s a very colorful person. He exaggerates, but he has a poker face. He never smiles, even through jokes,” he said.

Like Donald Trump, Duterte has chosen not to engage with the media in the conventional way. He stopped holding press briefings for two months shortly after his election victory to avoid “mistakes.” The press has also been prohibited from attending his inauguration. That leaves Andanar and other cabinet members to put out Duterte’s fires.

Duterte’s admission to personally killing people is the latest statement that members of his administration have had to retract—or heavily caveat—on behalf of the president. In October, they clarified Duterte’s announcement regarding plans to sever economic and military ties with the United States. “It’s not a separation… You have to parse it as a rebalancing, as a restructuring of economic relations from too much dependence on the West,” socioeconomic planning secretary Ernesto Pernia said.

Andanar says the media (video) should know by now that it is simply the president’s style to speak in an aggressive manner.

In November, Andanar had to reassure Filipinos that Duterte did not have any plans to declare martial law and that it “never crossed” the president’s mind. This clarification came after an outcry to Duterte’s comment, “Sometimes I am tempted really to declare martial law,” while addressing a Jewish community in the Philippines. Duterte visited the synagogue later to apologize for comparing his deadly war on drugs to the Holocaust.

That was in fact the second time Duterte mentioned the possibility of martial law. The first instance was in August, which Duterte said as a warning to the chief justice who was against Duterte releasing a list of judges linked to the illegal drug trade.