Duterte’s Unrelenting Attacks on Philippine Media

Opinion03.05.2019Marites Dañguilan Vitug
Duterte’s Unrelenting Attacks on Philippine Media
Duterte’s Unrelenting Attacks on Philippine MediaFNF Philippines

When the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), an independent and reputable team of journalists, reported in April that President Rodrigo Duterte’s wealth and that of his two local politician-children consistently grew, a mismatch to their declared modest earnings, the president went ballistic. The PCIJ, in a series of well-researched articles, pored over dozens of the Dutertes’ assets statements and wrote: 

“How and why their fortunes are rising remain a mystery; the numbers do not seem to add up, and what they reveal in their SALNs [statements of assets and liabilities] breed riddles of incongruent details...”

Every year, government officials are required by law to file their assets statements. 

One other striking finding of the PCIJ was that the president’s daughter, Sara, mayor of Davao City, has never registered her law office with the Securities and Exchange Commission, a requirement under Philippine law. Yet she and her husband, also a lawyer, actively practiced, resulting in conflict-of-interest situations.

The Office of the President as well as his children never replied to PCIJ’s questions despite repeated requests. Instead, Duterte lashed out at the investigative journalists. He said in a speech:

“Don't mess with us because what we earned outside is none of your business actually. We have businesses, we have law offices. What a goddamn shit.”

This was not the first time that Duterte was angered by independent media’s reports questioning him, his policies (such as the war on drugs), the state of his health –in many instances, the President suddenly cancelled appearances and was out of public sight for days—and his unbecoming behavior and rough language, among others.

Rappler, Inquirer, and ABS-CBN

Early in his presidency, he set his sights on Rappler, a leading online news outlet that reported unrelentingly on his violent war on drugs, calling it foreign-owned. Since the Philippine Constitution limits media ownership to Filipinos, Duterte was accusing Rappler of violating the law. 

But Rappler is a hundred-percent Filipino-owned. What Duterte was referring to was investments by two foreign media groups in the form of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDR), an arrangement similar to what giant television networks like ABS-CBN and GMA 7 have. 

(PDRs are legal instruments or means by which foreign entities can invest in Philippine companies with nationality restrictions. They do not equate to ownership or control by the PDR holders of day-to-day operations.)

Duterte has also banned Rappler reporters from covering him anywhere in the country, most recently during a campaign sortie of the ruling coalition wherein he spoke. (The Philippine midterm elections for the Senate, Congress and local governments will be held in May.) These reporters have brought their case to the Supreme Court, asking the Justices to put an end to this move that restricts freedom of the press. 

Today, Rappler faces close to a dozen court cases questioning its ownership, its supposed tax evasion, and alleging that an old, innocuous article is libelous. What we’re seeing is government’s big squeeze on a news organization that continues to report without fear. 

Duterte had also repeatedly threatened the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a widely-read newspaper with an online version, saying he would file a plunder case against them but the basis for such charge has remained unclear. (Plunder cases are usually field against corrupt government officials.) The Prieto family, majority owners of Inquirer,  were slapped with a billion-peso tax evasion case on one of its businesses, Dunkin Donuts.  (It is common for big media owners to own other businesses not related to the media.)

As for ABS-CBN, an existential threat hangs over them after the President said he would use his influence to stop Congress from renewing the television network’s franchise which expires in 2020, before Duterte steps down. (Duterte’s six-year term ends in 2022.) ABS-CBN is an influential media organization with a wide reach. In the Philippines, broadcasting companies are required to obtain a franchise in order to operate—and it is Congress that issues these franchises.

The most recent form of intimidation was a baseless news report that media organizations including the PCIJ, Rappler, and Vera Files are part of a plot to oust Duterte. It would have been a laughable and ridiculous charge—except that the source of the report was no less than Duterte. The President’s spokesperson, Salvador Panelo, confirmed this, another attempt to demonize the media. 

For the first time in 33 years, since the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was deposed in a popular rebellion, the Philippine press is experiencing threats and attacks from the highest and most powerful official in the land. The Philippines no longer enjoys the epithet of the most free press in Southeast Asia. 

The autocrat

What lies beneath this great pique, this bottomless well of resentment against anybody who shines the light on Duterte, his family and people close to him?

It has become clear that the President has little understanding of the paramount tenet that public office is a public trust and that one of the journalists’ duties is to hold government to account. His reaction to the PCIJ stories reflects this mindset. 

The President, we have observed, does not appreciate the role of media in a democratic society. He had earlier said that freedom of the press is a privilege, not a right—contrary to what the Philippine Constitution explicitly guarantees. 

It is ironic that among the first orders he signed was a command to the executive department to disclose information of public interest, similar to a freedom of information act. But he himself refuses to disclose his true state of health and is incensed when the media dig into corruption or other issues that embroil public officials close to him. 

The President is an autocrat at heart, his thinking and habits as mayor of Davao engraved in his DNA. For more than 20 years, Duterte lorded it over the city, his ways unchecked by government institutions and local media. He is not used to working with co-equal bodies like the judiciary and Congress. He seeks to control them rather than let the democratic practice of checks-and-balances thrive. Moreover, to Duterte, tough and challenging questions from the media are alien.

After all, Davao benefited from peace and order and economic growth during Duterte’s rule. He took over at a time of violence between the communists and right-wing vigilantes and tamed these warring groups. He also went after suspected drug users—from which was born the infamous killing team known as the Davao Death Squad.

In trying to replicate his small-town experience to a national setting, Duterte has run roughshod over the media. As the Committee to Protect Journalists found during its visit to the Philippines in April: "The oppressive working environment for journalists in the Philippines is alarming" as intimidation against the press has been increasing and space for the free press in the country has been shrinking.

The media expect this situation to continue under Duterte. The only option is to push back by doing one’s duty.

Marites Dañguilan Vitug is an author and journalist. She is currently editor at large of Rappler.