Duterte: In the eyes of international media
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte had always been under the lens of the media — not only here in the Philippines but also in the international sphere — even before he rose to power as the country’s chief following the 2016 national elections.
In 2016, TIME Magazine featured Duterte dubbing the then Davao City mayor Duterte as “The Punisher” amid his looming win in the national polls.
In an article titled “The Next President of the Philippines Could Be ‘The Punisher’,” it cited human rights groups alleging that hundreds of suspected criminals in Davao City “extrajudicially disappeared”. The article further mentioned Duterte’s “death squad” as a part of “Duterte’s self-professed efforts to clean up” the city of Davao.
Further, the article noted how the “straight-talking” Duterte garnered a following during his presidential campaign that highlighted eradicating crime in the country, similar to what he accomplished in Davao.
This popularity among the international media, and in essence the international community, seemingly only grew through the years as Duterte assumed the presidential post.
Right after the May 2019 midterm elections, a friend of mine who resides in Sweden sent me a copy of a newspaper clip there which discusses how Duterte’s power increased further with most of his allies winning in the polls — and no one from the opposition being able to secure a seat in the Senate.
While the narrative of Duterte’s “increased power” following the 2019 elections interested me, the idea of a Filipino president reaching broadsheets in a country that does not have a clear-cut connection with the Philippines had a bigger impact.
It begged the question, “How is Duterte in the eyes of the international media and why is the international media picking up on stories regarding the president? What are the struggles of being a foreign journalist in the country?”
Divisive and quotable language
Ma. Diosa Labiste, who teaches at the Department of Journalism in the College of Mass Communication at the University of the Philippines – Diliman, attributed Duterte’s popularity in the international media to several reasons — one of which is the president’s use of language.
Labiste said Duterte’s use of historical references — for instance when the president compared his campaign against drugs to the Holocaust where six million Jews were killed by the Nazis under the Hitler regime before and during World War II — mixed with the president’s use of “quotable” language, made him a good copy for the international media.
“Duterte’s language is quotable and this attracts foreign media. His use of historical references (the Holocaust, Hitler), his anti-US tirades, his pro-Chinese equivocation and his post-colonial quips easily generated international coverage. Likewise, his regular inflammatory rants became international news because they are covered by the local media and amplified on social media,” Labiste said in an email interview with INQUIRER.net.
Labiste said Duterte’s “folksy and wayward statements” not only attract local media but also the international media, especially when the statements made have implications towards the international community.
“His (Duterte’s) statements often make an appeal to many but they can also be reduced to simply hateful and dangerous because his words vilify and threaten individuals and groups. Philippine media would like to report on his vitriolic and incredulous statements regularly because they can draw the audience or readers. Foreign media also did the same when the statements have international implications,” Labiste explained.
Further, Labiste noted how Duterte is “no different from other populist leaders in the world that use virulent rhetoric and divisive language.”
In 2018, Duterte was placed in the cover of Time Magazine international edition along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The article, titled “Rise of the Strongman,” described Duterte as “a former mayor who talked more like a mob boss than a President, on his promises to wipe out the drug trade with his own brand of justice.”
The article also tackled the increasing number of populist leaders in the world.
“These tough-talking populists promise to protect ‘us’ from ‘them. Depending on who’s talking, ‘them’ can mean the corrupt elite or the grasping poor; foreigners or members of racial, ethnic or religious minorities,” the article reads.
The Palace, however, hit the international media, saying that they are not used to a president who “speaks his mind and heart” and speaks what the masses feel.
“Hindi sila sanay . Hindi sanay ang international media sa isang presidente who really speaks his mind and heart. You must remember that kung ikukumpara mo ang international media from national and regional media satin. Iba-iba ang thinking niyan e. Iba-iba yan ng mga nakasanayan. Pag tinanong mo media sa Davao, sanay na sila. Pag tinanong mo media sa Mindanao, sanay na sila. Kasi ganun ang batuhan ng diskurso, sagutan sa ere sa Mindanao,” Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar told INQUIRER.net in an exclusive interview at the Malacanang.
“Ang bansa natin if I’m not mistaken three to four percent lang may hawak ng kayamanan natin, 90 percent considered poor so the president mirrors the anxiety the frustration of the poor and he talks the way the poor talks. So talagang kakaiba,” Andanar added.
Further, Andanar said that Duterte’s manner of speaking should not be condemed, underscoring that the results of the recent elections, where majority of Duterte supporters won, painted a picture of the public’s continued support of his presidency.
“Siguro nagkaroon tayo ng isang leader na talagang nakikinig at nagsasalita, o isang leader who talks the way the masses talk… We should not condemn how a person talks kasi if 90 percent of the Filipinos identify with the president, you can’t blame them and you can’t blame him also for talking the way [he does] and you can’t blame them for voting him into office,” the communications secretary added.
Citing his own experience working in the field of media, Andanar also took note of Duterte’s “quotable statements” which can be used as “clickbaits” — to the extent that whatever Duterte says becomes viral especially in the age of social media.
“Well I was in the private media once, I ran the online portals of TV 5 and you know napaka-importante talaga pag kung taong nagsasalita ay nash-share yung sinasabi. Pwede gamiting clickbait etcetera. Kumbaga sa produkto ay mabenta talaga si Presidente. Nagsalita lang si President boom it goes viral. Whether you are local, regional, nations, intl media, he’s really a good subject, a good copy,” Andanar said.
International media and the drug war
The international community had slammed Duterte’s controversial campaign seeking to eradicate illegal drugs in the country. This campaign had been dubbed as “war-on-drugs” which had resulted in thousands of deaths across the country.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) in June 2019 said that a total of 6,600 deaths linked to the war-on-drugs campaign have been reported from July 2016 to May 2019. In a recent report, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency said that the numbers are around 5,500.
Among those who covered the campaign is British reporter Howard Johnson who had been in the Philippines for two years after he was assigned to cover the country for BBC News in the United Kingdom.
When Johnson arrived in the Philippines, the drug war had been under implementation for a year, and had been widely reported in the international media.
“I arrived in the Philippines July 2017 I obviously about read about what was happening with the drug war but I wanted to see it firsthand,” Johnson tells INQUIRER.net in an exclusive sit-down interview.
While he had his expectations and impressions, Johnson said he made sure he would go to the grassroots and talk to the communities where cases of deaths related to the drug war were reported.
There, Johnson said, he heard firsthand the stories of the families whose loved ones were among the casualties of the war-on-drugs — among the stories he heard was from a mother who alleged that the funeral parlor was already waiting outside their house when a police operation that took the life of her son happened.
“The most important thing for me was to go and assess the situation myself independently of all of these advice I had been receiving. So I went to Tondo [and] Santa Cruz I met family members of those who had been caught up in the drug war and I heard their stories,” Johnson said.
“It’s really important to understand that the media tells the story time and again and it becomes may be boring for the viewer to hear the stories of misery, death, shabu and poverty but when you see it firsthand when you’re sitting next to someone crying their eyes out and they’re telling you their story it’s very real and very visceral and very moving,” the journalist added.
The Palace had insisted that international media had been focusing on the negative aspects of the drug campaign and not on the positive results of the campaign — particularly the decline in criminality rate in the country.
“Bumaba ang criminality ng halos nine percent from 520,000 noong 2017 [and noong] 2018 mga 470,000. 8 out of 10 Filipinos believe in the war against drugs. More than 1.2 million drug dependents have surrendered themselves to the authorities para sila ay ma-rehabilitate. Makikita mo yung mga kalye ngayon, mas safe ang mga kalye ngayon. Mayroon ding survey na nilabas ang PNP even if you look at the data from the time of Tita Cory [Aquino] all the way to today ay napakababa ng crime rate ng sting bansa,” Andanar explained.
But taking a book about the Philippines Constitution from his bag which he always brings with him, Johnson said his view of what is right and what is wrong in the Philippines strictly depends on what is written in the Constitution.
“Here’s the Philippine Constitution, any journalist coming into this country should read this first and if you read it, in here is the Bill of Rights and from there you can really understand what you know this country believes in. Should I take my lead from this or shouldn’t I?” Johnson said.
“I mean that’s that’s the question. It hasn’t been altered yet and there’s talk that it will be altered but as it stands, this is still a legally binding document so I base my understanding on what’s wrong and right on this country or what’s legal based on that document and so how can you dispute that?” he added.
The issue, Johnson said, relies on one thing — do you care?
“My expectations started with what I’d seen in the newspapers. The New York Times did a very visceral piece that I believe won the Pulitzer Prize, internationally recognized journalism. And then I saw the bodies myself on the streets. I saw them being dragged away in body bags. I saw the families crying. And I’ve met with members who live in squalid conditions and everything adds up, so my expectations were met,” Johnson said.
“What was being reported at the beginning of the drug war was exactly what it is, it’s just whether you choose to care about it, that’s really what it boils down to,” the journalist added.
Visit the Philippines, don’t rely on reports
Amid international media’s coverage of Duterte’s war-on-drugs, Andanar said international journalists should visit the Philippines themselves and not simply rely on other reports.
“I want international media, especially the critics, to really go to the Philippines and really cover everything themselves. Kung mayroon mang critics na mga nagcri-criticize lang based on reports coming from their other news sources in Philippines or kung anumang nababasa nila at hindi naman first hand info, I think it is imperative for them to really go the Philippines,” Andanar said.
The communications secretary also urged foreign journalists to be “objective” and not only get the side of the families of the victims, but also the side of the government and the families of the policemen who were killed in drug operations.
“Don’t only talk to critical personalities in the Philippines but also talk to government. Don’t only talk to the victims that say that ‘teka muna na-victimize kami ng PNP’. Kausapin nyo rin yung pamilya ng mga policemen na namatay dahil sa encounter sa drug, Just be fair, just be objective,” Andanar noted.
For Andanar, the way Duterte and his war-on-drugs are portrayed depends on the media institution’s views and stands.
“Ang masasabi ko lang kapag China media ang kausap mo, very objective lang. Di sila nagcri-criticize. Pag tiningnan mo ang Russian media, ganun din. Pag tingnan mo yung ibang nasa Europe, nasa America, medyo negative,” Andanar said,
“So palagay ko depende yan sa pananaw ng media organization, alam mo naman na sa ibang bansa malinaw ang stand ng isang media organization — sa Amerika kung ikaw ay isang conservative or ikaw ay isang liberal. Ganun din naman sa Europa. Depends yan sa kausap mong media,” the communications secretary added.
Duterte supporters had also previously noted how foreign journalists do not have a context in reporting the president’s controversial policies and the cultural differences with regard to Duterte’s use of words.
While Johnson recognizes the differences in culture including Duterte’s jokes about rape and other sensitive topics, he noted the importance of being able to represent the country on the international stage as in the UK at least, any politician joking about rape would most likely be immediately removed from office.
“I understand that if that’s accepted in the south, that is how it is. If you find it funny, that you can joke about violence towards women or molesting them, that is up to you if you want to clap at those jokes and laugh, I understand that because that is what is in the culture in the south or perhaps of Davao if that’s what we’re talking about here,” Johnson said.
But at the end of the day, Johnson said he is merely reporting what Duterte says and what he sees amid the controversial drug war.
“We have also written to the police to find out their side of the stories and we always wait back from them and we always make sure that all of our work is balanced to make sure it reflects both side of the story so this idea that this is just a one-way story that [we only speak] to the families is not accurate because we always show both sides of the story,” the journalist added.
“We speak with those who also agree with the policies, every live report where we talk about drug war I always mention the taxi driver or the persons in the communities that they felt safer because of the President and his drug war — but we also talk about families who said they are terrified that their door will get kicked in at night and then their daughters’ breasts will be exposed to the police, they’re scared of seeing bodies being dumped at night, they’re scared that their teenage son could be dragged down an alley and shot in the back,” Johnson said.
Agent or history?
Duterte’s popularity in the international media had raised debates whether it is the agent that makes the history or it is the history that makes the agent.
For the Palace, it is a mixture of both.
Andanar said that it is not only Duterte, as a person which includes his tough-talking demeanor and controversial policies, that makes the Philippines a popular topic among the international media as other external issues are at play.
“Everything is timing, Neil. It came to a point when President Duterte became a president that our importance in the global community multiplied a thousandfold. Suddenly the Philippines is in the center of the universe. Suddenly the Philippines has become a very a very important community because of our proximity to China and because of our location in the West Philippine Sea where majority of the trading ships that go to China to and from pass-through our sea lanes,” Andanar explained.
“We have two giant countries — US and China — competing against each other business-wise, trade-wise, military-wise and we are in the center of it so the Philippines has become a very important country,” the communications secretary added.
What are the ingredients to be a popular figure internationally? Andanar said: “Kahit na napakagaling mo na agent kung hindi naman timing ang pagpasok mo bilang Pangulo e makakagawa ka, sisikat ka pero di ka sisikat ng ganun. Pero pag nagsabay yan, edi you have — that’s the ingredient or becoming very popular internationally.”
‘Yellow-tard’ tag and struggles of foreign journalists
Johnson’s reporting has also led to numerous instances where he was tagged a “yellow-tard”, which has been a tag widely used in the online community against those criticizing the president.
“There are patterns here in the language used by trolls or bashers that makes it feel organized. You could be told that you are a liberal-tard or a yellow-tard when I have no connection whatsoever to any party in this country,” Johnson lamented.
The Philippines, Johnson believes, has become one of the “most threatening countries” that he has worked in on the basis of threats he was receiving online — he even recalled several instances of him receiving threats of violence.
Johnson also expressed concerns that there is seemingly lack of action from the government to stop the rise of the “nasty culture” that had been happening online.
“What I feel here is that there’s a culture online, a nasty culture, of people who attack and try to undermine and it feels like that there’s nothing being done to reign that in,” Johnson said.
“A lot of talk about freedom of speech and reporters being welcomed to come here and report, but if you do report on controversial issues, you will receive a barrage of abuse that can terrify people’s family members back at home and upset people. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve received threats that say ‘watch your back… and next to it is a skull and crossbones emoji’, ‘if I find you on the street, I’ll punch you in the face’, I’ve had numerous threats of tracking me down. And yet, I haven’t really felt comforted by any action to call out this seemingly organized culture of online violence,” the journalist added.
While Johnson believes that foreign journalists are free to visit the Philippines and report on the issues regarding the country, it comes with consequences.
“I believe that there is free reporting here, I’m a testimony to that, you’re free to come here and report, but prepare for the consequences if you say something that someone doesn’t like, that’s also really honest,” Johnson said.
Regarding the protection of journalists in the country — local or foreign — Andanar assured that Duterte has concern for them with the signing of his first administrative order as the country’s chief, the Administrative Order 1 which created the presidential task force for media security.
“[Duterte is the] first president in the Philippines — in the world — to create a task force whose task is precisely to protect the media to ensure that there is media security because it is written in the constitution — freedom of the press,” Andanar said.
“Pagdating sa media mayroong malasakit ang ating mahal na pangulo sa presidente, sa media. Mayroong malasakit ang presidente sa media. Mayroong makikitang napakalaki, napakataas na pagsalig ng pangulo sa media. Our president protects and also advocates strongly freedom of the press,” he added.
Johnson, however, said that the government’s protection of the media should go a step further and cover the threats that transpire in the online community.
“It’s encouraging the messages coming from the government that you can report freely here, and I feel pleased to hear that. I just hope that they could now take that one step further and have a look at the online attacks, have a look at what happens on Facebook” Johnson said.
I care about the truth
Johnson continues to live in the Philippines to cover not only Duterte and his war on drugs campaign, but also other topics that are happening in the Philippines ranging from light-hearted stories such as the singing trio of the TNT voice and their rise in the international stage, to other issues faced by the Philippines such as poverty in the slum areas.
“We are reporting all sides of the Philippines, not just the drug war. I would much rather be reporting on happy stories, but the truth is that there are controversial things that are happening here and that they have to be reported,” Johnson said.
Johnson also expressed hopes to speak with Duterte so the international community would hear it from the president himself.
“We’ve put in requests to speak with him again, I’m sure the world would love to see more of the President and hear from his own voice, to hear what he has to say about the Philippines and his recent midterm elections success. So really we would love if the President could grant us an interview, so we can hear from him about what’s happening here in the Philippines,” the journalist shared.
Despite the “yellow-tard” tags and the threats against his life and security, Johnson said there is only one thing he is holding on to — the truth.
“I have no interest in wealth, I don’t have a car, I ride a pushbike, I like my coffee in the morning and my newspaper and the simple pleasures of life like walking in the mountains. I have a pet ‘askal’ street dog that I helped to rescue. In my job, I only care about truth actually. That’s the only thing that motivates me,” Johnson said.
Duterte’s popularity among the international media and the international community is seemingly not going anywhere any time soon.
With the upcoming State of the Nation Address (SONA), it would be interesting to see if Duterte would address issues with regard to the state of journalism in the country, for both local and foreign journalists.
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