Does Duterte mean all the crazy things he says?
KUALA LUMPUR—Has President-elect Rodrigo Duterte been misquoted? Watch one of his long, freewheeling late-night press conferences in full to see why the Inquirer ran a headline, “Don’t fuck with me, he tells media,” using a line he reiterated in his June 2 press conference.
I told the American Chamber of Commerce that they underestimate Duterte from a May 24 Singapore talk. First, Filipinos accept his record 16 million votes. International media ignored how Filipinos were hotly debating not Duterte, but how Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. almost won as vice president.
Second, he will soon command a majority in Congress.
Third, he has one of the strongest local track records, as mayor of our third largest city for 23 years.
Finally, claiming the poor rose in revolt parallels the popular lie that Marcos Jr.’s support grew from millennials born after the Edsa Revolution. Opinion polls showed Duterte’s largest percentage support in upper and middle classes.
The audience’s skeptical faces told me their minds were made up by the New York Times and comedian John Oliver’s segment on Duterte making Donald Trump look good. But even Filipinos in their own social-media echo chambers need to study our new president more closely.
Duterte’s May 31 press conference made international headlines after he said: “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a b—h.”
Was he serious? Absolutely.
Was he misquoted? No.
Was there a context? Apparently.
He was sharing an anecdote about assassinated Davao radio commentator Jun Pala, a “rotten son of a b—h” who he said deserved it. He said Pala took money from one side and launched into extremely personal attacks on (“babuyin”) the other, even attacking wives and children. He reiterated in his June 2 press conference that when the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas held a meeting to censure him, he appeared with an Armalite and goons. He also spoke of broadcasters claiming his daughter Sara gave birth in America and heard his father describe payments to media.
He prefaced his anecdote by saying that most in media are clean. On June 2, he outlined that there are three types of journalists, the first being genuine crusaders, some of whom died “unnecessarily” in the line of duty. It is a risk inherent in the profession, which he compared to soldiering. He cited journalists he respected, including his incoming peace adviser Jess Dureza.
Perhaps he simply wanted to describe shades of gray a thousand kilometers from Manila. He does not think the killing of journalists should be addressed as a special subset of killings in general, even telling reporters on June 2: “You think too much of yourselves.” And he thinks media should police their own corruption, just like the Church and government.
Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew did write: “The Philippines had a rambunctious press but it did not check corruption. Individual press reporters could be bought, as could many judges.” When I asked Commission on Elections spokesperson James Jimenez on Twitter in 2013 about their right to reply regulation, he cited media vilification campaigns in local elections.
But Duterte’s anecdote was in response to a Davao reporter asking: “What is your policy on the journalist killings that the Aquino government failed to act [on]?” His quote on assassination was the last of increasingly emphatic responses to the reporter’s follow-up questions. It was naturally taken as a new statement of national policy.
Duterte arguably had a context at other times. He said whistling is not sexual and he cannot be prevented from doing it. He was playing lawyer with Rappler reporter Pia Ranada, who read out Davao’s antiharassment ordinance in the June 2 press conference. This prohibits whistling accompanied by “words having dirty connotations or implications,” not whistling in itself, even at women.
Free speech protects speech, not action. You cannot accuse a woman of censorship if she slaps you over catcalling. However, it is impossible to write a law prohibiting whistling without referring to words that reveal intent.
Duterte also said his joke of raping a dead Australian missionary was made as black humor to goad soldiers with him before assaulting escaped prisoners. People condemn, though, not the actions during that 1989 jailbreak but the repeating of the joke in 2016 during election rallies.
We, especially those condemning him, must accept that we have an unorthodox president and each needs to watch one of his press conferences in full to understand how he communicates. Media have added video clips and greater detail to press conference reports given a president who does not speak in sound bites. While there is much legitimate criticism, some give me pause—from the petition for Duterte’s resignation even before his inauguration, to spokesperson lawyer Sal Panelo persistently criticized solely on the basis of previously representing a defendant in the Ampatuan massacre trial, lest we judge all lawyers by their past clients.
Duterte need not become someone other than the person 16 million Filipinos elected. I hope, though, that instead of revisiting old slights, he uses his storytelling charm to educate us about the other side of the Philippines from Imperial Manila and the structural changes needed to bring progress there. Public opinion is fickle, and his predecessor could not say he was misinterpreted when he was not there to salute the coffins from Mamasapano being unloaded at Villamor Air Base.
With his mandate, Duterte has all the potential for greatness. It would be a shame to squander it on debates about impunity in assassinating journalists and catcalling women.
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