When Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines more than two years ago, expectations for a conventional few years in the country’s politics were all but thrown out the window. His reputation for thuggery, nepotism, and mouthing off was as entrenched as his ignorance of the etiquette expected of those in public office.
It was a reputation he earned as the longtime mayor of Davao in the troubled south. And those expectations have largely been met so far, with his “war on drugs” resulting in the killing of thousands; his denouncements of the West and shift toward China; a declaration that “God is stupid” in a Catholic country; and his attacks on critics, particularly in the press.
The assault on the press in particular deserves attention. Though the Philippines has long been one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to operate in, Duterte has raised concerns even further on a number of fronts, from his army of cyber trolls to human rights issues that have intensified during his watch.
Duterte’s relationship with the media plumbed fresh depths recently when a court granted a furlough to accused mass murderer Zaldy Ampatuan, enabling him to attend his daughter’s wedding at a Sofitel in Manila. While the presidential palace officially expressed disappointment at the decision, the development unsurprisingly stoked fierce resentment among some domestically as well as internationally and raised further questions about what this meant for justice during Duterte’s tenure.
“This is a disgrace,” said author and academic Karl Wilson. “This trial should have been over long ago and is another example of how corrupt the judicial system is.”
Wilson was referring to the Ampatuan Massacre – also known as the Maguindanao Massacre – of 58 people, including 32 journalists, in Maguindanao almost nine years ago. The victims were tortured, butchered, and shot by gunmen.
Proof of culpability by the gun-toting Ampatuan clan – a family militia with extensive political ties to the Philippine government – is overwhelming, but convictions are harder to come by.
The fallout from the wedding fiasco highlighted that lack of justice, with widespread concern expressed by entities including the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. The level of attention forced the Duterte administration to increase its focus on the matter. The furlough was also a dreadful slap in the face for the victims, their families, and the Philippine media, which is renowned as among the freest and noisiest in the region.
A Deadly Place for Reporters
Reporters Without Borders has cut the Philippines’ ranking on its 2018 World Press Freedom Index from 133 a year ago to 127, out of 180 countries.
This followed government threats, media restrictions, and the murders of four journalists last year, making the Philippines the deadliest country for journalists in Asia.
“This government does not like criticism and wants a compliant media. This is a country that has seen hundreds of journalists murdered since the fall of Marcos and very few have been jailed for their crimes,” Wilson said.
As noted by Sheila Coronel, director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, Duterte does not like the press, dismisses journalists as everything from “bullshit” to “garbage,” and, in some cases, has lived up to threats of getting even.
“Threatening as this crackdown is, it’s only one arm of a pincer-like assault on the press. Duterte is drawing from the Modern Autocrat’s Field Guide to Information Control,” she wrote.
“The aim is complete encirclement so as to drown out critical and independent voices. Like [Russia’s] Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recip Tayyip Erdogan, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, he has launched a two-pronged attack.”
The first prong, Coronel said, is media muzzling through government regulation, deployment of the tax department, and libel laws.
“The other is letting loose an army of trolls, bloggers on the state’s payroll, propagandists and paid hacks who ensure the strongman’s attacks against the press are amplified in newspaper columns and on the airwaves, on social media and fake news sites,” Coronel added.
The evidence is there for those who are looking for it. To take just one example, since May, Duterte has been trying to draft legislation to ban reporters who “besmirch” the reputation of lawmakers from covering the national legislature — laws denounced as “dangerously ambiguous and stifling” and an affront to many Filipinos.
“Duterte has made wild public statements against journalists, even justifying death threats against them,” Wilson added.
Duterte also blacklisted Rappler reporters from covering Malacañang Palace and initiated tax evasion and libel prosecutions against its owners while the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating its ownership structure. That could mean closure.
Wilson added the Philippine Daily Inquirer, another vocal critic of Duterte, has been sold out to Ramon Ang, president of the San Miguel corporation and a friend of the president.
“The Inquirer was an excellent newspaper and grew from the ashes of the Marcos era as a defender of free speech. ABS-CBN is also under fire and there is a question mark over whether or not its license will be renewed,” he said.
Wilson said the crackdown in the Philippines was part of a regional trend, with Thailand standing out alongside the Philippines, Myanmar, and Cambodia, where journalists have been jailed on charges of espionage and treason.
“Malaysia’s media was tightly controlled but now the government has changed we are still waiting to see if the handcuffs will come off the media,” he added. “Just look around the region and you can see the deterioration in free expression.”
Fake News in the Online World
Veteran journalist, author, and bureau chief for UCA News Jose Torres Jr. said the Duterte government was always expected to promote its own agenda. However, the industry was shocked when the president said some journalists were killed because they were “corrupt.”
“He then imposed a boycott against media,” Torres said. However, government interference was largely offset by the digital age, and Torres noted the Philippine media had been active in the online world from its earliest years.
“Online media platforms have become the venue for a more critical and alternative brand of journalism that the government seems to be worried about in recent years,” he said.
“The growing trend, with the proliferation of social media platforms and easier access to the internet, is the widespread and growing threat of fake news.”
And Duterte’s minders have been called to account.
Presidential Communications Operations Office Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson has faced numerous accusations of spreading fake news, amounting to charges of grave misconduct and serious dishonesty.
“The online world is a much different beast from traditional media,” Wilson added. “It is hard to control by governments. But we should not forget that the online world is a two-way street.”
He said politicians see the online world as a tool to get their message across and as a means of attacking the mainstream media, a strategy deployed by U.S. President Donald Trump to unprecedented levels.
“The Donald has mastered this. The online world has now become the fifth estate where anyone can take part in the debate, from the intelligent to the lunatic fringe,” Wilson saild.
Old, unresolved stories like the Amaptuan Massacre die hard and need to be resolved before sanity can prevail in relations between Duterte’s government and the press.
Of the 197 original suspects facing multiple murder charges, just 116 were arrested for the greatest massacre of journalists in modern history. Nine years later, 107 remain on trial, without a resolution in sight. Five were dismissed.
Zaldy’s father, clan leader, and co-accused, Andal Ampatuan Sr., died in 2015.
Importantly, he was a political ally of Duterte, former president Gloria Arroyo, and her husband Mike, who were not the biggest fans of the press, and were – despite one court’s finding — notoriously corrupt and provided patronage for the Ampatuans before and after the massacre in Maguindanao.
“The government’s media handlers, even during the previous administrations, have taken for granted the diversity of the Philippine media. There is this image in the minds of government media handlers that Filipino journalists can be bought, that ethics are negotiable,” Torres said.
“There is truth to it, of course. But there is also a growing sector in the media that has become critical and professional, especially with the growing influence of online journalism,” he said.
It’s a troubling recipe, and a confronting one for Duterte, who politically resurrected the Arroyos, unleashed a culture of arbitrary killings, and ensured his role as chief torturer in a media landscape marred by death, intimidation, and government intervention.
Following the fallout from the wedding fiasco, the Duterte administration has been put on the defensive, and it has been trying to show signs that it wants to address concerns with respect to the Maguindanao Massacre, including reports that witnesses have been urged to retract their testimonies. But given Duterte’s wider assault on the media, one can forgive observers for being skeptical about how far his administration will really go in this respect.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt