A FOUL wind is blowing against the incoming Duterte regime and threatens to become a super storm, all because of careless speech. What first appeared as a passing tempest involving local journalists now seems to have become an international cause celebre involving no less than the United Nations Secretary General and the world press.
At the UN Correspondents’ Association reception in New York City last Thursday, Sec-Gen. Ban Ki-moon condemned President-elect Duterte’s statement that “just because you’re a journalist, you’re not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.” Duterte has not taken part in the killing of any journalist, but the current rhetorical fire on that subject could not have been more inflamed if he had.
“I am extremely disturbed by recent remarks by the President-elect of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte,” Ban Ki-moon said. “I unequivocally condemn his apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killing, which is illegal and a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms.
Such comments are of particular concern in light of ongoing impunity for serious cases of violence against journalists in the Philippines.”
The issue has now been fully and radically internationalized. It has not been broached before the UN General Assembly, Security Council or any UN organ on human rights, but it need not go any higher than this. It is high enough.
For a while, it looked like Duterte had won the day when he mistook a UN human rights worker for someone from the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, who had earlier criticized his statement, and told the foreigner to “go home and sleep,” instead of poking his nose into the raging dispute. But he discharged himself fully against the UN, using expletives.
Ban Ki-moon apparently saw this as a big enough issue and decided to use the annual gathering of UN correspondents, diplomats and other guests to talk about it. No UN Secretary General has ever done that. No one has ever gone out of his way to name an incoming or sitting head of state over the latter’s quarrel with the local press.
Protecting the press
This does not necessarily reflect the gravity of Duterte’s offense. It is more a reflection of society’s effort to protect the honor and standing of the press. It is one way of telling potential strongmen, “You can mess with the Church, with religion, with the whole caboodle of law, ethics and morality, but you don’t mess with the press.”
I tremble for President-elect Duterte. If this means a war with the press, it means a war not only with the Malacañang press or the entire Philippine press, but rather with the world press. This is a beast I would not dare tangle with. Already, there is a threat by the local press to boycott the Duterte news briefings and an equal threat on Duterte’s part to ban the private media from those briefings.
But this is child’s play compared to what the world press can do to any government, not by boycotting it, but rather by subjecting everything it does to the closest scrutiny, without any compunction, mercy or forgiveness. None of its official secrets will be safe; none of its indiscretions, minor and major booboos will be hidden from public view; Mr. Duterte himself could run out of expletives.
This would create a war simultaneously on at least two fronts. Since Duterte’s announced bounties to the security forces and the public for the death of drug lords have drawn a counter-offer of P50 million for his own head and another P50 million for the head of his anointed Philippine National Police chief from the drug lords, he would have to take extreme precaution to protect himself from possible assassination by the drug lords while protecting himself from political vaporization by the world press.
I can’t say which is the more dangerous. Duterte may be the kind of individual who thrives on such dangers and threats, but I would not blame those close to him if they should ask him, even at this stage, to “demand a recount”—as the famous conservative American intellectual William Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008) declared, when asked what he would do if he won the mayorship of New York in 1965.
I tremble for the incoming Cabinet, especially the bejeweled spokesman and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs-designate. Neither of them may have prepared for this kind of engagement, but together they will have to lead the defense. This is going to be a tough fight. Once the press has decided the government has become an ideological foe, it will not be easy to do anything right. We saw this during the Marcos years.
Warning from the press
Marcos never said what Duterte said to earn the wrath of the press. But he proclaimed martial law to defeat the communist insurgency and to “create a New Society,” shutting down the media establishments in the process. Immediately the world press descended upon Manila, and a powerful foreign deputation led by a distinguished editor from London warned me, as information secretary, and then-Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, that the world financial institutions would cut their lines to the Philippines if martial law or the media restrictions imposed by martial law were not lifted quickly.
I was not less brash than our honored guest, so I responded before Johnny Enrile could speak, that the government had taken extraordinary security measures to protect its sovereignty, and I didn’t believe we would be “blackmailed” by any outside party into taking any step against our national interest. This drew instant protest from the deputation head, who said: “Blackmail is a very strong word.” I did not mean to offend, so I apologized. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “English is not my first spoken language, and I know of no other word to express what I wanted to say.”
While I dealt with hundreds of foreign correspondents in Manila, I also had to deal with all sorts of interventions from various parts of the world. Foreign Secretary Carlos P. Romulo was my active collaborator in this. This was decades before the internet, and Romulo would regularly send me long dispatches from our diplomatic missions in New York, Washington, London, Paris, etc., calling attention to articles from the foreign press, which needed to be answered “immediately, if not sooner,” in CPR’s famous words.
I was running an entire department, but many times I found myself doing everything by my lonesome. I had to learn to use the electric typewriter faster than my fastest typist, to meet pressing international deadlines. By then the world media had replaced the local media, and covered every local story about martial law as regular fare for the world’s leading newspapers.
It was like being put inside a glasshouse and watched by the sharpest eyes 24/7; you couldn’t afford to be seen trying to scratch an itch, or in any state of undress. You had to perform every single minute of the day, except that you didn’t know if those watching you approved of how you looked.
Winning the press
Our objective was to make the press a little more benign, if we could not win it. Marcos made himself available to almost everyone for interviews and tried to charm every interviewer. Exceptionally intelligent and charming, he impressed the most academically prepared, and even the most politically and ideologically biased, journalists with the depth and expanse of his knowledge. And they came out of his interviews in profound awe of the man they might have initially thought very little about.
William Buckley, Jr., founder of the highly respected National Review, host of the celebrated Firing Line, and reputed to be “the most dangerous public conversationalist” in America at the time, sat down with Marcos, prepared to dominate the conversation with this strongman from the Third World. He ended fascinated after he spoke about character and Marcos rejoined, using the words of Heraclitus—“Your character is your fate.”
Speaking to Buckley later, I asked how he found his interview. He burst with delight and wonder, “How many statesmen in the world can quote Heraclitus to the editor of the National Review and host of ‘Firing Line’?”
The government’s relationship with individual journalists improved, but the basic objection to the press restrictions imposed by martial law remained. They resented the fact that the government required them to submit their stories “for approval” prior to publication. Indeed, this was most annoying particularly to the wire service agencies where accuracy and speed were of paramount importance.
The government finally lifted censorship after we found out that the correspondents were flying out to Hong Kong just so they could write favorable stories about the Philippines without having to put the word “censored” after the Manila dateline.
But one particular incident was critical to that decision. This involved an article written by Nicholas Tomalin, a writer on the Sunday Times of London, on our press regulations.
Tomalin came to my office one day to submit his article “for censorship.” It made fun of the government’s press regulations. I read it with secret envy and delight, wishing I had written it myself, if I wasn’t the Secretary of Information. It was a great satire.
I then thanked Tomalin and gave him back the article. He couldn’t believe what was happening. “What? You’re not going to touch it at all?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “publish it as it’s written.”
“I’m totally disappointed,” he said. “But I think you’re really much smarter than I thought. Do you know what would have happened, had you touched anything? The facsimile of the article would have appeared with all your erasures, interpolations, ‘revisions,’ exactly as you made them.”
When the Sunday Times article finally appeared, it carried the author’s note: “Uncensored—courtesy of a whimsical censor.”
I did not see much of Tomalin after that; I learned later to my profound sorrow that he was killed while covering the war at Golan Heights in 1973. But I thought he had a major contribution to play in the lifting of the martial law censorship, which helped speed up the normalization of relations between the government and the press.
Despite the usual ups and downs, I succeeded in developing such warm and friendly relations with members of the world press that when I finally resigned from the Cabinet in 1980, one of my more persistent critics flayed me for having become a valued friend of the foreign press even though they continued to criticize the government.
A few years before that, Time magazine gave me the shock of my life when they named me, along with Ninoy Aquino, as one of the “150 Faces of the Future,” in a survey of “rising young leaders” around the world. I could not think of anything to explain it except my effort to build strong ties with the press.
The bigger issue
Now we have this crisis between the incoming regime and the press. Despite this false start, I have high hopes for a healthier relationship. But errors must first be corrected. From Duterte’s unfortunate quote on the killing of journalists, the issue has morphed into the much bigger question of making ‘killing’ a primary governing instrument.
This goes against the verifiable advance of human civilization, and the liberal and libertarian mind can only be opposed to it. To win the support of the world press, the Duterte regime must first win the debate on the basis of reason and the universal principles of morality and justice rather than simply impose it, without much debate, as an instrument of power by those who equate the severity and irrevocability of the death sentence with the certainty of justice.