Duterte’s Heat Level: A Blazing war against the press

  • + Rodrigo Duterte is known for his authoritarian approach to politics.
  • + Duterte has shut down leading news platforms in the country.
  • + Maria Resa, a journalist who uncovered scandals about Duterte, now faces conviction.
Source: Dondi Tawatao

Why is Duterte’s heat level blazing? 

Answer: Duterte has sentences a journalist which has led many to question the level of freedom of the press in the Philippines.

Considered one of the most controversial and radical leaders of the world, Duterte is the son of a former governor of Davao province. In the 1970s, he was a prosecutor in Davao, where he was elected Mayor in 1988. Duterte was later elected President in 2016 with a record figure of 16.6 million votes, largely due to his populist speeches. The Filipino population was previously used to politicians from oligarchic lineages who ruled the system without appreciating material progress in the population’s lives and did nothing in the fight against corruption. For this reason, the citizens wanted to give the opportunity to a person who had a strong sense of authority and promised to focus on solving everyday problems promptly. 

The 16th president of the Philippines is known for his authoritarian approach to politics and brutal law enforcement. He implemented controversial measures such as the reinstatement of the death penalty by hanging, which had been abolished since 2006. Throughout his legislature, there were thousands of deaths related to drug trafficking and consumption. This has brought up some serious human rights considerations. But even with such measures, according to surveys, 82% of Filipinos are satisfied with the President’s controversial drug war. 

Rodrigo Duterte is also a strong enemy of any critical press under his leadership. In 2017, four journalists were killed, making Philipines the deadliest country for journalists in Asia.  According to the Philippines constitutionThe Congress shall give highest priority to the enactment of measures that protect and enhance the right of all the people to human dignity, “ However, Duterte frequently insults reporters and has also warned journalists that  “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination”. 

Two years ago, he revoked the license of one of the Philippines’ leading news platforms, Rappler. This news website has been very critical of Duterte’s measures. Rappler’s political correspondents are no longer allowed to enter the presidential palace to attend press conferences. The Philippine government has also announced that it is investigating Rappler for a possible tax evasion that would amount to $2.5 million.

In May this year, the National Telecommunications Commission issued the order to suspend the operations of the conglomerate. As a result, 42 television channels,  including Channel 2, the most-watched news program in the country, and 23 radio stations ended their broadcasts. In total,  around 11,000 workers will be directly affected. 

However, the bigger issue is the lack of freedom of the press in the Philippines. This goes against the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR)  as it says “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the right to hold opinions without interference”. Rodrigo’s move is also unconstitutional, as the Philippines’ constitutions state “Neither shall any Filipino be deprived of the right to freely express his ideas or opinions, orally or in writing, through the use of the press or other similar means”. The fact that Duterte could get away with violating the UDHR, as well as the Philippines constitution with minimal repercussions, has left him untouched on his blazing authoritarian path.  

Who is changing Duterte’s temperature? 

Answer: Maria Ressa is through her fight against the Duterte administration and becoming an icon of press’ freedom in Asia. 

Maria Ressa is a very known journalist.  She has been named Person of the Year by Time magazine in 2018 and has been running the Rappler portal since 2012, a pioneer in denouncing drug war abuses and uncovering scandals involving the government of Rodrigo Duterte. The president has repeatedly attacked the news platform and accused him of lying. Yet, Maria Ressa’s Rappler continued to report the killings along with other human rights violations committed by Duterte’s government. 

The threats towards Ressa have not stopped since then. At one point, Ressa received about 90 death threats per hour on social media and, as a consequence, she has had to reinforce the safety of her journalists. Moreover, Ressa was convicted of cyber libel along with investigative journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr. for an article published in the digital media in May 2012. In the article, the plaintiff, the businessman Wilfredo Keng, was related to the drug business. Five years after the publication, Keng filed a lawsuit alleging that the report is defamatory because it links him to drug trafficking, although that claim is based on an intelligence report that a source leaked. Additionally, Ressa also confronts another libel prosecution, two criminal cases alleging illegal foreign ownership in her companies, and investigations into her old tax returns.

Now Ressa faces up to six years in prison as she has been convicted in a dubious case of cyber defamation. This has brought up an essential right into the international scenario, freedom of the press in the Philippines. The conviction of Maria Ressa is the most recent hit to press freedoms in the country. The United Nations, the Roman Catholic Church, the European Union, and the United States have continually condemned his policy as a violation of human rights. National activist groups also protested the killings. But despite the international pressure, it seems like Duterte will not be backing down anytime soon. 

What is driving Duterte? 

Answer: His populist and hardlined approach to governance. 

Duterte’s background of a rebellious nature might be an explanation to his populist and authoritarian governance. Rodrigo Roa Duterte grew up in the battle-damaged city of Davao and is the oldest son of the then governor of Davao Province. As a teenager, Duterte was a very troubling kid. He grew up around the wrong crowd, got into fights, and learned the rude expressions he often uses in his speeches and interviews.  By 15, he had a gun and in an interview, Duterte said that it was at the age of 17 when he killed a person for the first time. He even got expelled from high school several times. Rodrigo went to law school, where he shot and harmed a classmate and was expelled from the school. His experiences led him to believe that he could do as he pleased and get away with it and this has, of course, been reflected in his presidency as well.  But now, this comes at the cost of the Philippines’ population. 

Duterte’s life trajectory is an explanation of his unpredictable political measures, such as the war against the freedom of the press. A report conducted in 1998 by Dr. Natividad Dayan affirms that Duterte suffers from an “Antisocial Narcissistic Personality Disorder, This often includes acting very impulsively, difficulty controlling his temper, and most importantly, using intimidation. Duterte is willing to silence everyone who goes against him.

Duterte declared war on journalists in the digital media in the 2016 Presidential race when he accused the ABS-CBN network of refusing to run a number of his campaign’s political ads. When he became President, outraged by the media coverage denouncing his authoritarian measures, Duterte decided to boycott and later attack the media through government regulation to de-legitimize freedom of information.  He decided to go against the most widely used newspaper in the Philippines, the Philippine Inquirer, which had begun to compile a “dead list” of all victims of the drug war. 

Philippines’ next election will take place in 2022. However, under the country’s new federal constitution, he is ineligible for re-election. If this is the case, Duterte does not have to worry about public opinion and appeasing masses. This leads us to believe that Dutert’s main reason to go to war against the press is to prevent drawing the world’s attention to his authoritarian regime. This is a key characteristic of Duterte’s political style, which has also been seen through the complete lack of independence of the judicial system in the Philippines.

What does this mean for you?  

Answer: An attack on the right of expression and freedom.  

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, as established in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which goes hand in hand with freedom of the press. Freedom of information is one of the indispensable conditions of democracy. Without a free press that reports rigorously and controls abuses of power, democracy is limited. The press must be guided by ethical values ​​and honest, coherent, upright, and transparent principles so that they are the benchmark for credibility, impartiality, independence, and true democratic pluralism.

Press freedom is one of the most uncomfortable rights for rulers. Silencing or ignoring it is a way to limit and handcuff the citizen from the right of knowledge. This is a strategy that Duterte often uses in his way of ruling in the Philippines and his war against the press is a huge step back from the country’s democracy. 

Often, instead of prosecuting those responsible for corruption, it is these people who end up in court. Police estimate more than 30,000 protesters marched in Manila to denounce President Duterte’s authoritarian regime. 

Duterte is looking forward to signing sweeping anti-terrorism legislation. This would legitimize the government to classify government opponents as terrorists and detain people for critical social media posts. This legislation was drafted to allow the arrest and detention of people without a court order or a charge for criticizing the government or acts such as causing property damage or carrying a weapon. Anybody tagged as terrorist or suspected of belonging to a designated group could be arrested without a warrant.

This, along with the lack of information due to pressure on the media, makes a dangerous combination that leads to a very authoritarian regime. Now that freedom of the press is curbed, if this law is approved and passed, reporting will also reduce. This is a sign that Duterte’s almost totalitarian regime won’t ease anytime soon. 

Misiker Agulló Rodríguez

Research & Analysis Intern