Some lessons about govt and the press


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.”

Issue internationalized

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

 duterte being interviewd by the media in manila, march 6.

Duterte being interviewd by the media in manila, march 6.

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.

Two fronts

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’?”

Battling censorship

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.”

Whimsical censor

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.


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  1. The one listening with intelligent mind, perceives that this mayor is indirectly telling people to loss respect to all journalist..Pabgo bago isip niya,,Bluffer siya, Pag nasukol na,,sasabihin niya, eto ibig sabihin noon..di ninyo nahahalata? Ni di nga niya mapangalanan ang 3 general,,dahil takot siya at ngayun sinsabi niya warning lang yun,,dahil alam niya ang resulta na..may takot siya…Kunwari matapang ,,,supot kasi yan..karamihan sa taga davao supot…Lawyer nga siya,,pero pang otary public lang at may kapit lang kaya nakapuwesto,,di lahat ng lawyer magaling dami bobo diyan. like duterte,,na pasang awa.o nalagyan ang resulta ng exam niya.

  2. we the north on

    I think it was Not the President Elect Quarrel with the Press but his ” devil may care” if the Assassins eliminate the rotten apples among the members of the Press, and that was irresponsible for the Protector of the nation to say so.

    Still recall that the former PM Harper has also a Quarrel with the Press and it did not caused a ruffle to anyone…Mayor Ford used to chase the press with a baseball bat from invading his private property and they just love playing cat and mouse with the late Mayor (yes, he wdraw from the his re-election bid upon being diagnosed with a rare form of Cancer and succumbed to disease).

  3. No amount of effort will change President-elect’s attitude (now at 71++ years old) because such behavior is largely influenced by his misplaced & distorted acquired values since childhood days to date. Whether such habit is good for his presidency, only time will tell. In the meantime, let him enjoy & do his “worst” & we will do our best.

  4. Amnata Pundit on

    As I said before, his foul mouth is a breath of fresh air, as it exposes the putrid pretentiousness of the current order of things. The times are different today. The press all over the world are fast losing their credibility because of their capture by vested interests which has made their version of reality so far removed from what their readers are seeing and experiencing. The internet is now more believable than the press, which means the odds against Duterte are not as lopsided as you think. Look at Donald Trump and watch how ineffective the phalanx of anti-Trump tirades in the mainstream media has been against him.

  5. Joshua Schneider on

    Not to worry for long Obama will be the Secretary General of the UN and he will solve all problems. But to deal with the facts at hand…. it might not have been the smartest thing to say at the time… something politicians have spin doctors solve. Kudos for Tatad for picking up on this and placing it is its proper respective place.

  6. listen closely to what Duterte had to say about black timers and A/C-D/C reporteres .Incorrect reports to the UN might have also come from such kind of media reporters……..

  7. No matter how good or fine your “speech” was, if the biased and irresponsible medias were against you, will always present twisted version against the speaker.

    Look how mainstream medias have lied to us, only showing what they want to show on their news to favor their political interest or their boss’ profit.

    Look how they destroyed many people like CJ Corona, PGMA, Marcoses, etc.

  8. The way I look at this incident, Duterte is having a hard time being a good smooth talking guy. He is just plain rude. I guess he being a lawyer did not change him to be a smooth talker like most lawyers are. My advice, no more interviews. Forward all to the presidential spokesperson and please avoid or do not use the word MISQOUTTED, because It is an insult to my intelligence.

    • Ignacio Balbutin on

      I prefer rude talking people but honest rather swavy talking guy but hypocrites

    • Problem is he is not honest..he is rude and not honest..why he cannot open his BPI acct,,before he is denying that he doesnt have this account,,ang later when already caught him,,he told ,i have a litle amount there, but as per other people,,he has million ..and why not show them the history of his bank? Manloloko si duterte,,dahil alam niya pinoy,,madali maloko,,mabo;a

  9. Another writer who didn’t listen CLOSELY to Duterte’s pronouncements.

    Duterte clearly stated that he’s just enjoying his last few days of rudeness- because he can no longer act as such on July 1st.

    To date- EVERYTHING that Duterte has publicly stated is within his constitutional right of the freedom of speech because is NOT YET President.

    He can wolf-whistle, curse, and shout and NO ONE can do anything about it because he has NOT VIOLATED ANY law as a private citizen.

    • Are you sure dutertrads? He himself violated davaos law, by wolf whistle..and as other dutertard with no brain like you, he is a public fiure being a Mayor.. Alm mo ba sinasabi mo o BOBO ka lang? Kung murahin ko siya at ipahiya sa maraming tao being a private citizen, di ba ako lumalabag sa batas? di dapat bobby ngalan mo kundi Bobbo.

  10. Social media is now the name of the game. Press power is decimated. Unpaid Netizens are more credible than the paid press. Ban Ki Mon can shout as he wish but the world is reading FB post of friends….. Others may now be shouting in FB “Shot Ap Keemon”.

    • What can we do-Duterte is Naturally Rude-and he did say those Bad words. Lucky for him he has many Uto2 fanaics and blind followers who idolizes everything he say and does

    • Is the FB news is reliable? daming anonymous diyan o fake account at magbabalita na fake,like what followers of duterte did,,to destroy other contender..they even photoshoope the picture of roxas, binay,poe in a worst scenario,,which is not true..and may bobo like you.

  11. Ignacio Balbutin on

    Does the Philippine press or the world press understand what President Duterte said? The President already explained that he was not threatening the whole Press but the corrupt Press, He even give an example of that so what is this protest about it? Are the Press, local or international crying like babies?