In June 2016, shortly after winning the presidency, Rodrigo Duterte let loose a mouthful about journalists in the country. In hindsight, we now understand it as a central tenet of his presidency and his world view, although at that time most people, including journalists, took the words as just part of the general kookiness that he liked to project.
Speaking in Davao, Mr. Duterte said he believed that “there are three kinds of journalists in this country.” The first kind are “the crusaders, telling the truth, baring it all before the public.” The second type he characterized as “mouthpieces of vested interests… the publicists.” The third, said with “snarling contempt” as a columnist in another paper put it, are what he describes as “lowlifes.” These lowlifes move about accepting money from all kinds of people and in return “(keep) shut their mouth. They are paid; they ask for more, and if there is nothing coming their way, they talk more. They destroy people and family, and they die.” Such journalists, said Mr. Duterte as quoted by the columnist, are nothing more than extortionists. And, said the columnist, Mr. Duterte “lumps most journalists in this lowlife category.”
This is how he proposes to solve the “journalist problem”: “Kill journalism. Stop journalism in the country.”
So now we know.
As the country observes World Press Freedom Day, Filipino journalists are realizing—though perhaps not their audience yet—how systematically and thoroughly President Duterte is carrying out his dearest wish.
The country has been steadily falling in the ranks of the annual World Press Freedom Index, now ranking 134th out of 180 countries, one spot lower than its rank last year. While still quite a distance from Vietnam, China, Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, the bottom five in the Index, the Philippines’ current standing is quite a ways away from our vaunted status as the “freest press in Asia,” a title Duterte officials still insist on trotting out despite the plethora of evidence to the contrary.
Assessing the situation here, the Index noted that “the government has developed several ways to pressure journalists who dare to be overly critical” of state policies and actions like the “notorious” war on drugs. Three journalists have also been killed this year alone, and if words could kill, then the prevalence of “troll armies” who launch online harassment campaigns against media workers they abhor have by now racked up quite a kill list.
The targets of Mr. Duterte’s ire have varied in his three years in office. First he went after the big guns: the broadcast giant ABS-CBN and this paper and its owners. Then he trained his sights on the online news site Rappler and other alternative news services. Lately, along with Rappler and its embattled CEO Maria Ressa, other organizations like Vera Files, particularly its head Ellen Tordesillas, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism as well as the National Union of People’s Lawyers, were tagged as being behind an “ouster plot” to weaken the Duterte administration. The chief of the Philippine National Police has since hinted that those named in the ouster matrix could (or would?) face charges.
This is nothing new for Filipino journalists practicing their calling. Many will recall that, together with prominent oppositionists and activists, journalists were among those ordered arrested and detained upon the declaration of martial law. Indeed, many found out about it only when they turned on their radio and TV sets and got nothing but silence. Those waiting for their daily fix of news in print waited in vain, for the presses of the biggest newspapers had been shuttered the night before.
But still, journalists soldier on. In the face of a domestic and indeed global threat to a free press, to the unbridled exchange of news, views and information, the international journalism community is closing ranks, seeking to do a better job of monitoring violations of the right to free speech and the prosecution of a journalist doing his or her job.
There may be three kinds of journalists according to Mr. Duterte’s estimation. But the only kind of journalist who matters is one who seeks truth and who speaks truth to power.
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