Last Tuesday, President-elect Rodrigo Duterte presented his Cabinet-in-waiting to the public for the first time. The rite of political passage was quickly overshadowed, however, when Duterte’s news conference took a by-now-familiar turn for the bizarre.
He complimented a TV anchor/reporter in the cringe-inducing tradition of Dirty Old Men, catcalling her as she stood up to ask a question and pretending that she was trying to catch his attention for other reasons. And he answered another question about journalist killings by impugning the integrity of the victims and justifying their deaths as corruption-related.
Strictly speaking, he did not “endorse” journalist killings, but he justified them, called them impossible to prevent, undermined the protections guaranteed by the Constitution, and in the end failed to even so much as hint that he, the mayor with the iron fist, would use the long arm of the law to prevent more killings and render justice to the aggrieved. In other words, he gave the signal to those with an axe to grind against journalists to start grinding that axe into journalists’ skulls.
You don’t have to take our word for it. Listen to the words he actually said. (Recordings are aplenty, and verbatim quotes are circulating online and on social media.) Listen to them or read them—but don’t buy the apologists’ take that Duterte’s words must be taken in the right context, or that a special Davao City subculture must be taken into account to understand what it is Duterte really means. His extended remarks on the subject of journalist killings bring their own context.
In short: His words speak for themselves.
He said at least twice that the question was an attempt to get him to explain the killings; he had only obliged the reporter who asked the question, he said. But in fact, the question was: “What is your policy about journalist killings, that the Aquino government failed to act [on]?” How much of his nearly five-minute-long answer was directly about policy? Exactly zero.
Instead, he gave a fatalistic answer that was out of character for a man with his reputation for action. “There is no way to know that the next victim will be a journalist.” This is unfortunate excuse-making, not only because in a matter about which he knew very little (the accidental deaths at that summer concert the other weekend) he readily opined that the authorities were liable for “failure of intelligence,” but also because in many cases, journalist-victims received unmistakable death threats before they were killed. There is no way to know that a journalist will be the next victim of an extrajudicial killing only if one plays deaf and blind.
While careful to include qualifiers (he still thinks like the lawyer he is), Duterte also justified the killings as business transactions gone mortally sour. “Sa karamihan, may nagawa yan. Kasi hindi ka naman talaga papatayin diyan kung wala kang ginawa.” (A neutral translation: “In most cases, he did something. Because really they won’t kill you if you didn’t do anything”—referring either to corrupt deals involving journalists or to journalists attacking subjects who are not used to being attacked in print or on TV or radio.) He also said what quickly became viral worldwide: “Just because you’re a journalist you’re not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.”
But while corruption remains a serious problem throughout Philippine media, death for the corrupt, without benefit of trial, is not and cannot be the answer. (If it were, why start with journalists and not, say, with the corrupt politicians now flocking to Duterte’s camp?) Besides, the killing of even just one innocent journalist—or indeed of any innocent—should be reason enough for outrage. But the long list of those who have been killed include many outstanding and noncorrupt members of the media, such as Marlene Esperat and Gerry Ortega.
Most insidiously, Duterte also said: “The Constitution can no longer help you pag binaboy mo ang isang tao (if you malign someone).” This is an astonishing claim, because the rights to free speech and a free press, which include the obligation to criticize those who abuse their power, are guaranteed in the Constitution, and because it is the role precisely of the President of the Philippines to make sure that the Constitution is enforced, becomes a living document. But Duterte, his finger on the trigger, was happy to talk only about death.
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