Duterte’s Ironic Free Speech Advocacy in the Philippines

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Duterte’s Ironic Free Speech Advocacy in the Philippines

The war of words between the Duterte and Marcos clans has made the former president an unlikely – and unconvincing – champion of free expression.

Duterte’s Ironic Free Speech Advocacy in the Philippines

Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during his speech in Davao, southern Philippines late Sunday Jan. 28, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Manman Dejeto

Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has warned against the deterioration of freedom of expression under the government of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.

After a planned rally was canceled in Tacloban City on May 25, Duterte issued a public statement blaming “the forces of darkness that threaten not only our rights to express our grievances but the very existence of our nation.”

He accused his successor of sabotaging the rally, whose speakers included not only himself but his close allies as well. “As part of the Marcos administration’s policy of stifling peaceful dissent, they are doing everything to prevent this rally from happening,” he added.

The former president claimed that dissent was tolerated during his term. “I was city mayor for 22 years and president for six years but I never, never ever prevented anyone from exercising his or her right to peacefully assemble,” he said.

He minced no words in describing the state of the nation. “Freedom of expression is very important and even more so now when there is no transparency, accountability, peace and security in our country. It is a sad day for Philippine democracy,” he said.

Tacloban is the bailiwick of the Romualdez clan whose matriarch is Imelda Marcos, the mother of the incumbent president and former first lady during the Martial Law dictatorship.

Duterte insinuated that local Romualdez officials had a hand in the cancellation of the activity. The city government has denied this and pointed out that a typhoon disrupted many events, including the planned rally.

Perhaps Duterte and his camp had already noticed a disturbing pattern. On May 7, the venue of Duterte’s rally in Dumaguete City was moved twice after permits were revoked at the last minute. On April 28, Duterte’s rally in Bustos, Bulacan was abruptly canceled.

Davao City Mayor Sebastian “Baste” Duterte, son of the former president, expressed disgust over the cancellation of the assembly in Bulacan.

“This will not silence us but rather this will inspire us even more to continue to fight for transparency, accountability, and against any form of oppression by this current administration. We shall continue to protect the constitution,” the mayor wrote on his Facebook page.

Since January, the Dutertes have been attending monthly “prayer rallies” aimed at mobilizing public opposition to the charter change proposal put forward by Marcos’ allies. The elder Duterte said that the constitutional amendment bill is a ploy to extend Marcos’ term, which ends in 2028.

These “prayer rallies” have become controversial because of the presence of politicians and prospective candidates in the 2025 midterm election, and also because of Duterte’s tirades against Marcos, whom he has repeatedly accused of being a drug addict. At one point, Duterte’s son even called for the president to resign.

Despite this “word war,” the Dutertes and Marcoses are still allies in the ruling coalition. Duterte’s daughter is the country’s vice president and is concurrently education secretary in the Marcos Cabinet.

Duterte’s critical remarks against the leadership of Marcos could signal the worsening rift between the two influential political dynasties. The tension might turn into an open split that could divide the ranks of the ruling party ahead of the midterm polls next year.

Duterte may have a valid basis for decrying the state of freedom or unfreedom in the country but he lacks the credibility to be a champion of free speech. During his presidency, he consistently attacked the press for its critical coverage of the government’s brutal “war on drugs.” He supported the closure of the country’s largest media broadcaster while enabling the rise of social media influencers who peddled disinformation against state critics. He demonized activists, red-tagged civil society groups, and criminalized the work of human rights defenders. Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that identified red-tagging as a threat to a person’s life, security, and liberty.

Marcos could claim that his government is merely continuing the policies of his predecessor. But that does not excuse the human rights abuses and restrictions imposed on the local population. Media watchdogs have recorded around 135 incidents of attacks and threats against journalists under the Marcos presidency.

In other words, both Duterte and Marcos are guilty of weaponizing laws that eroded the country’s civic space. It is therefore absurd for Duterte to complain about state harassment when he is in many ways responsible for normalizing repression in the bureaucracy.

As an Inquirer editorial correctly pointed out, Duterte’s statement about government intolerance is “empty rhetoric by a person who craves the attention he once enjoyed.”

“He is the last person in the Philippines who can claim fealty or allegiance to the right of the people to free expression within the bounds of the law,” the editorial added.

Indeed, there are worrying signs today about the continuing hardships faced by the media in fulfilling their duty and the legal barriers that undermine the work of people’s organizations. But when opposition forces push back against tyranny, they demand accountability not just from Marcos Jr but also from Duterte as well.