TWO top allies quickly sprang to his defense. The leader of his Partido Democratic Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan party, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel 3rd, and his vice-presidential running mate, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, of the Nacionalista Party, both insisted that news reports misinterpreted his comments on corrupt media.
Were incoming President Rodrigo Duterte’s remarks wrongly understood and reported?
Now that a week has passed since that news conference, and the controversy has somewhat died down, it may be good to dispassionately review what was actually said, and how it was reported.
As it happened, many newspaper and online articles here and abroad blared that Duterte “justified” the killings of corrupt journalists. Some further argued that he encouraged such murders.
That disturbing, if not enraging take on Duterte’s media talk may have, in fact, read a certain perspective into it even if other meanings could have also been intended.
On the other hand, the way the discussion went, and given media’s penchant to pick up the more controversial or alarming interpretation, one can understand why many journalists reported as they did, to the outrage of press and rights advocates.
Plainly, there are lessons for both sides in the whole episode and its post-mortem. And if President-elect Duterte and the media are to avoid misreading his words, there is clearly a need for greater care in his remarks and how they are reported.
Duterte did not justify killing media
So let’s dissect the President-in-waiting’s statement, with extra care to forestall any facile claims of misunderstanding what was said.
“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
There are two possible meanings to construe from this line: that unsavory journalists can be killed, or that they can provoke assassination.
The first interpretation is an obvious point, which didn’t even need to be said. Everyone knows, especially the media he was addressing, that many newsmen have been murdered, including corrupt ones.
Now, if Duterte was making the second point, his statement may suggest that corrupt newsmen are to blame if they are murdered. That is certainly how it came across to many media here and abroad, judging from the headlines about his remarks.
Still, the President-to-be did not actually state that the killing of corrupt or unsavory journalists was right and justified, as many media wrongly headlined, possibly feeding the murderous inclinations of some media-hating people.
Blaming the victims
Now, did Duterte blame the killing of corrupt or unsavory media on the victims?
He never said it out explicitly, but in the many things he said, including his remarks on assassinated Davao broadcaster Jun Pala, he seemed to put the onus on the dead.
On Pala, who was a tough Duterte critic, the outgoing mayor not only decried the late radioman’s supposed sleaze and nastiness. Duterte also said he knew who had Pala killed, and did not lay any blame on the unnamed murder mastermind.
Instead, Duterte cited Pala’s disrespect for the person who had him killed as reason—but not justification—for the killing. Notably, many media use “reason” and “justification” interchangeably in headlines and stories, so Duterte citing Pala’s purported sleaze as reason for his assassination was reported as “justifying” the killing.
Another remark suggesting that Duterte blamed corruption or nastiness for the death of journalists is his claim that “most of those killed, to be frank, [had]done something. You won’t be killed if you don’t do anything wrong.”
Again, Duterte did not say that killing journalists who do wrong is justified and right. But with all the criticism leveled at the murdered media, with no mention of culpability among those who perpetrated the killings, it’s hard not to conclude that he was blaming journalists’ failings for most media assassinations.
A further point: the assertion that most media killed did wrong has no basis and is probably untrue. Certainly, the dozens of journos decimated in the Maguindanao massacre of 2009 were innocents caught in a barbaric act of political and tribal bloodletting.
Moreover, if a pressman was corrupt, he probably would just be paid off, rather than killed. It is those who cannot be bought whom dirty politicians, crime syndicates, and unscrupulous business may then silence in a hail of bullets. “Most of those killed, to be truthful, had refused to do wrong,” is probably the correct line.
In the national and international reactions to Duterte’s media comments, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders called for a boycott of his news conferences. While media in the country did not heed that wrongheaded urging, Duterte retorted with his own boycott of the press. He stopped his media conferences, and even said he would give no more till his term ends in six years.
These mutual boycotts are, of course, unwise and unsustainable, if both the President and the press are to function properly.
For the media, boycotting the most important figure in Philippine news would be plain stupid and hurtful to the public. It would punish not Duterte or his government, but the people who need to know from impartial, independent news about the next administration’s views and actions.
Repression, threats to journalists, and government statements seeming to abet such violations of human rights and press freedom, are reasons for journalists to be careful and courageous, not for us to shirk our duty to the nation and the truth.
So what should have been the headline for Duterte’s media remarks?
Maybe “Duterte blames media sleaze for journo killings” or “Most media killed ‘did wrong’—Duterte.” They may not sell as many newspapers or get as many Facebook “Likes,” but they’re truthful.
As for “Duterte justifies media killings,” while alarming rights and media advocates, that unwarranted banner might have those who have killed journalists or are thinking of it, feel right in their criminal act or intent. That undermines the truth twice over.