Media Attacks in the Philippines: Beyond the Populist Temptation of Duterte

Media Attacks in the Philippines: Beyond the Populist Temptation of Duterte
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

Duterte appears to be following in the footsteps of the tyrannical Marcos.

The use of populist rhetoric and style is not uncommon in Philippine politics. “Tunay na pagbabago” (real change) is indeed the ubiquitous battle cry used by political candidates to seduce the voting populace during elections.

And the current Philippine President, Rodrigo R. Duterte, capitalized on this slogan too alongside his campaign against corruption, crime and illegal drugs.

He was first introduced by the international media as a cursing president who publicly articulated an outrage against the elite symbols of power like Barack Obama and the Catholic Church. He still remains in the media limelight for his antipathy to human rights – a concept which time and time again questions his so-called “war on drugs.”

With his puzzling and sometimes cursing remarks, Duterte has been drawing diverse reactions from various institutions, including the press.

In June 2016, he was condemned by press freedom groups for whistling at a female news anchor during a press conference in Manila, and worse, for seemingly justifying the demise of an alleged corrupt Filipino journalist. Meanwhile, policies like the Presidential Task Force on Media Security mandated to assist and investigate the cases of attacks against journalists and the Executive Order implementing a Freedom of Information (EO on FOI) policy in the Executive Branch of Government were recognized as initial steps in addressing the security and freedom of the press.

Historically, the Philippine press used to be the freest in Asia. It was known for its critical stance against political and often state-sponsored tactics aimed at curtailing inherent democratic rights like free speech and free expression.

Luis V. Teodoro, a Filipino media scholar, argued that the history of press freedom movement in the country dates back to the 1890s when the revolutionary press and revolutionary movements defied the absolute censorship imposed upon by the former Spanish colonizers.

The dark years of Martial Law foisted by Ferdinand Marcos Sr. from 1972 to 1986 paved the way for the emergence of underground mosquito press and alternative press in the country. Jose Burgos Jr., the leading press freedom and alternative press icon at the time, together with the estimated 70,000 individuals and activists incarcerated due to their antagonistic movement against the Marcos regime.

Not too surprisingly, Duterte appears to be following in the footsteps of the tyrannical Marcos.

His pronouncement to accord the former dictator a hero’s burial despite wide public opposition in November 2016 is in itself indicative of impunity. In so doing, he venerated the dictator alongside its apologists while discrediting how journalists and rights defenders alike lived up to the promises of a working free press. Another grey area in this regard is the way Duterte displays his trust in Ferdinand Marcos Jr. when he implied his support for the ongoing electoral protest of the younger Marcos for the vice presidency.

Beyond his populist rhetoric of change, Duterte has yet to put his mind to the more than 170 journalists and media workers killed since 1986, as documented by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). No mastermind behind these killings has ever been convicted.

Under his watch, two more journalists have been killed and attacks in the form of verbal and security threats against journalists are still taking place. The proliferation of hoax news websites and online trolls, to some extent, contributes to the unprecedented online attacks against the press and those critical of Duterte.

The EO on FOI seemed to be a good initial development. But the manner by which it was created was contentious mainly because of the 166 exemptions it initially laid out. What was ironic, according to some Filipino journalists, was that the media was barred from covering the launch of electronic FOI and that the list of exemptions was narrowed to at least nine only after the press challenged the original 166. The change would only be meaningful if Duterte can muster his political blocks in Congress and urge them to pass a genuinely unrestrictive version of FOI into law.

The press often serves as the “primus inter pares” among the public institutions that could raise a critical voice against the malfunctions of democracy – whether caused by Duterte and other powers-that-be or the democratic system itself. What is more, the press does not cease to join the collective ranks of freedom advocates in arousing the public towards political mobilization.

In order to confront the populist and autocratic temptation of Duterte, the critical hallmark of the Philippine press must be memorialized.

Equally, the precarious discourse of power that targets the press must be resisted.

Editor: Edward White