MANY Filipinos genuinely want to see President-elect Rodrigo Duterte succeed, if only for the nation’s sake. But they are deeply and genuinely saddened. Many others are mortally afraid. The question they are asking is this: What’s happening to the person of our incoming President? Is he going to self-destruct even before he takes off? They aren’t even talking of his “program of government” yet.
First, he wanted to bring down the Roman Catholic Church; now he wants to bring down the media. Does he need either of these institutions to be his enemy?
Two recent incidents stand out. These are but “small” incidents. They involve a question of manners more than anything else. Nobody was killed, and nobody was raped. But from what’s appearing in the mainstream and social media, things could not have been much worse if there had been an actual murder or rape.
Murder of journalists
The first incident revolves around the unsolved murder of journalists. The second raises the issue of sexual harassment. In both cases, Mr. Duterte is seen holding the shorter end of the stick.
Having promised to kill all criminals, Mr. Duterte was asked in a news conference how he would stop the unsolved killing of mediamen, which had grown exponentially during B.S. Aquino 3rd’s six years in office. His answer knocked the living daylights out of his audience.
“Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you are a son of a bitch,” he said.
The strongest message that screamed out of that statement was that the journalists who had been killed were all “sons of bitches” and deserved to be killed. Relatives and friends of victims were outraged by the remark, but the President-elect will not apologize. Salvador Panelo, his bejeweled spokesman, said he will apologize only if he did something wrong, but since he has done nothing wrong, the question does not arise.
Statement of support
The Manila Times ran a strong editorial “in defense of the honor of slain journalists.” Journalists had been killed not necessarily because they were corrupt or abusive, the Times pointed out, but often “because they courageously reported the truth.” This column supports that statement.
At his Thursday news conference Duterte pressed his case against the alleged “sons of bitches.” He said he was ready to name journalists who had received bribes and favors from politicians, and had acted as their mouthpieces.
“You know, guys, you think too much of yourselves… You want (to have) your cake and eat it too,” he said. “If worse comes to worse, we’ll expose each other. I am ready to lose the presidency now. Or my honor, or my life. Just don’t f*** with me.”
No drunk could have said anything like it without saying sorry after he sobered up. But this was no less than our President-elect who in a few days would take his solemn oath to “faithfully and conscientiously fulfill my duties as President of the Philippines, preserve and defend its Constitution, execute its laws, do justice to every man and consecrate myself to the service of the Nation, so help me God.”
The statement did not simply “encourage impunity,” as the Center for International Law, Inc. put it. Much more than that, it endorsed “assassination” as a legitimate and legal means of settling grievances or neutralizing suspected criminals. Thus, in Cebu City, a P50,000 bounty per head is said to have been put up for the extra-judicial killing of suspected drug traffickers, while some police chiefs elsewhere are hunting down suspects with no other intent than to kill them and earn points from Malacañang.
If extra-judicial killing has become the norm, who will stand against it unless prepared to become the objects of extra-judicial killing themselves? Who will dare speak out, after almost all the members of Aquino’s ruling party have migrated to Duterte’s PDP-Laban like European refugees boarding the last boat to cross the Mediterranean? And after some murdered journalists had been called “sons of bitches” who deserved to die?
How did we ever get there?
After the last nitwit has ruined our lives for six years, we were hoping our next leader would lead us to a “sunnier upland,” where we could deal justly and humanely with everyone. Instead, he appears to have chosen to lead us back to the depth of the jungle, where the most brutal creature claims the right to rule.
In his news conference, things got more complicated when Mr. Duterte interrupted a question from GMA-7 reporter Mariz Umali and suggested, rather playfully, that she was trying to catch his attention. He then let out a wolf whistle and broke into song. This elicited amused laughter from the conference.
It was completely out of place, and made the reporter completely uncomfortable. Had the offender been somebody else, GABRIELA and Mr. Duterte’s other rabidly feminist allies would have instantly denounced it as sexual harassment, which is punishable under the law and under a Davao City ordinance. But they have remained silent until now. Umali’s offended husband quickly denounced it on Facebook, but spokesman Panelo was quicker to absolve his boss of any censurable offense.
Panelo said his macho boss had paid the female TV reporter a “compliment” and she should have been honored and thankful for it. How ungrateful!
Taking on media
The Philippine Star reported Duterte’s outburst under the banner headline, “Duterte takes on media.” Some individual journalists have since weighed in, and the issues are now joined. No headline will say, “The media takes on Duterte,” but we can be sure there will be no “honeymoon period” between Duterte and the press.
By tradition, the mass media and the public try to ignore a new administration’s most obvious booboos during its first few months in office. But because of Duterte’s much-resented remarks, this period may be considered to have already lapsed.
Of course Duterte could take his case to a higher level by putting the media under authoritarian control. The lure of non-accountable power could prove irresistible, and unless we are misreading the signs, he could already be heading in that direction. But the fate of those who ever rode the tiger has been constant and unchanging; they never survive the tiger.
A costly delusion
Just as it is a serious mistake for the incoming President to try to take on the 2,000-year-old Roman Catholic Church, without any provocation, it would be a grave mistake for him to try to take on the mass media in the hope of bringing down the institution, also without provocation. That would be an extremely costly delusion.
I write from experience.
As press secretary, information minister, presidential spokesman and speechwriter all rolled into one, I ran the information sector of the Marcos government for 10 years. Martial law, which Marcos had declared to turn back the communist insurgency, which appears to have won four Cabinet posts under Mr. Duterte, had temporarily disabled the freewheeling Philippine press owned by the old oligarchy. But led by The New York Times, The Times of London, and all the major US, British and European TV networks, the international media came in to fill the void and hold the government accountable to a much more politically demanding international public.
The role of the world press
I dealt with hundreds of correspondents from all over the world on a daily basis, and saw the kind of pressure exerted by high-powered media deputations, individual newspapers, radio and television networks not even known to most Filipinos. It was this unrelenting pressure, more than that which was coming from official diplomatic sources, that ultimately led Marcos to call for a special snap presidential election in Feb. 1986—which would ultimately lead to his ouster by the US- and civilian-backed military mutiny called the EDSA revolt. Read all about it, from an official American perspective, in Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State by George Shultz.
Despite his undiminished close personal friendship with US President Reagan, who supported him to the very end, Marcos had become, at this time, an “unpredictable ally” as far as the State Department and the Pentagon were concerned, mainly because of the hardening of his position on the military bases. Although he had fought side by side with the Americans against the Japanese in the last war, and was America’s staunchest ally throughout his presidency, Marcos had followed a consistently pro-Philippines and pro-Asia line with respect to the bases at Clark and Subic.
The role of the bases
A year after his first election in 1965, he sought to cut short the term of the 1947 US-Philippine Military Bases Agreement from 99 years ending in 2046, to the next 25 years ending in 1991. While seeking the return of base lands which the US forces no longer needed, Marcos insisted that the bases be called no longer “US military bases” but “Philippine bases,” under the command of a Filipino military commander, with the Philippine flag flying singly over them, except for the buildings where the US forces were quartered.
Finally, Marcos proposed that the agreement’s “rent-free” provision be reinterpreted, to allow for some form of rent. The US agreed to provide an Economic Support Fund, but recriminations eventually arose when Foreign Secretary Carlos P. Romulo, in talks with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, asked for a substantial rent increase. As the 1991 termination date approached, the US felt a need to negotiate an extension, but Marcos gave no indication he was prepared for it.
He had become so “unpredictable,” complained Ambassador Stephen Bosworth in private, “that if he had but one dark suit to his name inside his closet and he was invited to a strictly ‘dark suit’ dinner, you could not be sure he would wear his one dark suit.” That was a very serious problem to the US.
Meanwhile, the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr. on Aug. 21, 1983 had put his widow, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, in the active ranks of the opposition. Although she had become part of the group of Sen. Lorenzo Tanada, Jose Wright Diokno, Chino Roces, and Jimmy Ongpin, which publicly demanded the immediate removal of the bases, she had privately intimated that she was prepared to change her anti-bases stance at the proper time.
But how to persuade Marcos to agree to a transition was the real problem. Despite the shuttle of high-level US emissaries between Washington and Malacañang, neither State nor the Pentagon seemed to be breaking through. It was ultimately the media that did.
How the media did it
In Nov. 1985, Marcos appeared on “This Week with David Brinkley” on ABC. Taunted about his allegedly declining popularity, Marcos responded by challenging the opposition to a snap presidential election in which he would run against anybody. This was five years after I had left the Cabinet, and joined the opposition; the National Unification Committee, of which I was a member, picked Cory Aquino as our candidate. She lost as expected, but the EDSA uprising ousted Marcos, and installed Cory as revolutionary President.
Contrary to the well-propagated myth, Marcos did not fall because of corruption. He became corrupt because—and after—he fell. Much of this was the work of media. Once he was out of power, the international media had no let up accusing him of corruption. Anti-Marcos books rolled out of the assembly line from foreigners who knew nothing about Marcos or the Philippines.
Then as now, the media claimed the right to judge. But never did they hear the President call anyone of them a son of a bitch who deserved to get killed, or subject any female reporter to any ordeal on the excuse that he was but paying her a very high “compliment.”