How to Cover a President Who’s Literally Willing to Go to War With the Media
Lessons for the D.C. press corps from the front lines of Duterte's reign of terror.
MANILA — Two months into his incipient presidency, Rodrigo Duterte lambasted United Nations officials for criticizing his bloody drug war and threatened to pull the Philippines out of the intergovernmental body, a move that would have wrecked international relations and posed serious economic consequences for the Southeast Asian nation.
Amid national outrage, the president defended his statement in quintessential fashion: It was only a joke.
Duterte has often dismissed his controversial comments as harmless cracks and mocked journalists for reporting them otherwise. In February, the political firebrand admitted that out of every five statements, “only two are true while three are full of nonsense.”
“I just want to laugh at the expense of myself sometimes,” he added.
Duterte’s flippant remarks and assaults on the press exploit the vulnerability of a national media landscape already fractured and weakened by modern technology. Filipino journalists are finding themselves unable to combat their president’s rampant disinformation.
It’s similar to the existential crisis that American journalists have been facing. As a candidate and now president, Donald Trump has repeatedly railed against the press. In February, he called the “fake news media … the enemy of the American people.” His chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, has labeled the media the “opposition party.”
After Trump called former President Barack Obama “the founder of ISIS” during a campaign speech, he took to Twitter to lambast journalists for taking his words at face value. “They don’t get sarcasm?” he wrote.
Duterte’s statements to the press and his representatives’ inevitable clarifications are often full of contradictions. On one notable occasion, Duterte boasted of personally killing criminals while he was mayor of Davao in the southern Philippines. A day later, his communications secretary tried to walk it back.
“We don’t take all the president’s statements literally, but we take his statements seriously,” said Martin Andanar, secretary of the Presidential Communications Office of the Philippines, in strikingly similar fashion to characterizations made by U.S. pundits covering Trump’s various controversial comments.
This wishy-washy approach may be politically advantageous to Duterte, because it provides him the flexibility to dismiss certain statements as jokes or renege on off-the-cuff comments he later realizes to be damaging or unflattering. But for the journalists covering him, it’s infuriating.
“Duterte’s only been in office for eight months, but I’m already so dead tired trying to understand what’s happening,” said Ramon Tuazon, president of the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC) in Manila. “Americans will soon experience the same with Trump.”
Whether Trump’s and Duterte’s attacks are knee-jerk reactions or a calculated strategy, they have left the media stranded and confused. The only response available to Filipino journalists has been to re-dedicate themselves to their craft.
“When there is an attempt to discredit journalism, the only way to combat that is to fight strongly for your stories and be vigilant and obsessive-compulsive about the facts that you put out there,” said Jamela Alindogan, a Manila-based Filipina correspondent for Al-Jazeera.
“Stick to the facts, band together, and for once just forget about out-scooping other journalists,” she added.
Alindogan has been repeatedly threatened on social media by Duterte’s online army of supporters for her critical coverage of the president’s war on drugs, which has killed more than 7,000 people. Last September, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines condemned the harassment, which also targeted freelance reporter Gretchen Malalad and called for the Duterte administration to investigate threats against journalists. Duterte, to his credit, later urged his supporters to refrain from such attacks, but that was only after mounting pressure from advocates of press freedom. He continues to ridicule news organizations critical of his administration.
“I’ve been working for 14 years as a journalist, and for the first time I found myself on the defensive,” Alindogan said. “Duterte won the presidency largely because of his very strong social media campaign. Even now, that’s how he continues to galvanize [his base].”
During the campaign, Duterte’s social media director recruited supporters to engage critics of the candidate and defend his image online. They’ve remained an instrumental force throughout his presidency.
For years, Russia and China have used a similar tactic to promote pro-government propaganda at home and abroad. Duterte’s trolls — much like Russia’s web brigades and China’s wumaodang — effectively create a form of censorship through fear that intimidates journalists and diminishes the reach of opposing viewpoints.
“This president has supported a latent distrust of the press that has grown through the years,” said Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director at the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR). “The demonizing of the mainstream press has been picked up by a lot of Filipinos.”
This was on full display during a pro-Duterte rally in Manila in late February. “The media is bullshit,” one supporter asserted. He claimed journalists and anti-Duterte protesters were secretly plotting to oust the president. Duterte’s team has floated similar allegations.
Duterte has been capitalizing on this support. In January, he appointed celebrity blogger Mocha Uson, one of his most vocal advocates, to the board of the government’s movie and television ratings agency. Last month, the Presidential Communications Operations Office announced it was drafting a new media accreditation policy to provide social media bloggers access to presidential press briefings, a privilege traditionally reserved for established news organizations.
Tuazon, of the AIJC, said these developments seek to undermine traditional media and drown out negative coverage, creating an environment in which entertainment is amplified at the expense of news.
“The public is over-entertained but under-informed,” he said. “In a setting like this, it’s very easy for individuals and institutions to manipulate and to provide wrong information.”
Many American journalists believe Trump is leading them down a similar path, citing his seemingly uncontrollable tweets, relentless attacks on the press, and groundless claims about voter fraud and the size of his Inauguration Day crowd.
Duterte’s candidacy, much like Trump’s, was propped up by news organizations that were simultaneously outraged and enthralled by its existence.
With a penchant for profanity and crude humor, Duterte “changed the electoral playbook with his unorthodox style,” said one Filipino political scientist. “I think we are now seeing the emergence of a maverick president that is tailor-fitted for reality TV and social media.”
During the campaign, journalists exchanged clarity on the issues for headlines focused on Duterte’s most outlandish statements that not only horrified his critics, but also strengthened support among his most ardent fans. His daily news conferences were “nauseating” affairs that seemed to deliver Duterte “more profile and the press more advertising from page views and social media hits,” read an op-ed in The Guardian. It was a symbiotic relationship that arguably left Duterte with the upper hand — the more journalists attacked him, the more he could point his finger back at them. Press criticisms fed right into his anti-establishment narrative.
The media’s reaction to Duterte’s cultural mannerisms — as the first president from Mindanao, an island in the country’s south — had the same anti-establishment effect. Mindanaons tend to look down on the “sophisticated” or “far-removed” elites in Manila in the same way Midwesterners view the American coasts. When Duterte was elected, he brought his southern ways to the north.
“If we are more open to [his style], then we can actually deal with him in a better way,” said Rica Concepcion, a veteran Filipina journalist. “When people interview him like a CNN reporter would interview him, you get nothing. But if you interview him like you were sitting down in a pub, you would get many things.”
Duterte has even acknowledged that journalists are “not really attuned to my character.”
His personality, however, shouldn’t be the primary cause for concern to reporters, said Ellen Tordesillas, president of the investigative website Vera Files. Sorting out the facts and holding the president accountable should trump all else, she said.
“We hope that if we can give people the truth then maybe we will help shape their opinions. Whether we make people change their minds, that’s another thing. We just have to do our job,” Tordesillas said.
That can be difficult in a country where journalists are often threatened and killed for pursuing the truth. A total of 146 Filipino journalists were killed from 1990-2015, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Outside of metropolitan Manila, journalists contend with local officials who often target critics with impunity. This media environment, compounded by Duterte’s disregard for human rights, can easily discourage journalists from carrying out their basic fact-finding duties. American journalists do not face these kinds of challenges.
But Filipino journalists are used to navigating these threats, and while they still exist, the new struggle is differentiating between truth and fiction.
“Some people have said you got to keep slugging it out. Provide better reports and keep doing what you’re doing,” said Quintos de Jesus, of the CMFR. “But I don’t know if that’s going to work because of the diffusion of messages. We’ve never experienced this before.”
Photo credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images