Since taking office on June 30, 2016, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has changed the face of the country’s politics, embracing his ‘strongman’ appearance, particularly through his War on Drugs that has claimed the lives of more than 12,000 people at the hands of Philippines National Police and “unidentified gunmen.” This, along with other controversial policies, has made Duterte one of the most criticized leaders at home and on the international stage. Alongside this politically divisive time, the Philippines House of Representatives issued new draft regulations last week that, according to Human Rights Watch, “would allow Congress to ban reporters who “besmirch” the reputation of lawmakers from covering the national legislature.” This inherently ambiguous restriction on the free press has left journalists feeling stifled and has, according to the Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines, “struck a blow on one of the pillars of Asia’s most vibrant democracy.”
While Duterte denies any involvement in the decision to limit the free press, he has been notoriously vocal in the past, denouncing any bad publicity against the Duterte administration. The Rappler, which has been critical of the administration, has been vilified by Duterte’s government, who has accused the publication of tax evasion, which could result in its closure. Moreover, Duterte has made provocative statements targeting journalists, even justifying death threats against them in a country already characterized as an unsafe place for journalists. Last year, the Philippines was named the deadliest country for journalists in Asia with four killed last year and 176 murdered since 1986.
The administration’s restrictions on the free press are “straight out of the dictator’s playbook,” says Filipino Senator Risa Hontiveros. Duterte has been compared to the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recip Tayyip Erdogan, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban with his two-pronged media blast. This attack on the free press includes shutting down critical news outlets, such as The Rappler, through false allegations, and demonizing and delegitimizing media outlets. Like Donald Trump, Duterte has accused The Rappler of spreading “fake news” and has accused journalists of having no shame, confabulating stories and “pretend[ing] to be the moral torch of the country.”
This pattern feels eerily similar for individuals who still remember the ‘strongman’ tactics of the Philippines’ former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. In September 1972, Marcos closed down most newspapers and wire agencies in the Philippines and arrested journalists and political opponents. This shows the legacy of media suppression as a tool for political control in the Philippines but also, based on the subsequent leadership in the country up until recently, the ability of media to bounce back from such clampdowns.
In order to ensure history does not repeat itself, journalists in the Philippines need to unite in solidarity against the oppressive actions taken by the government. The Philippines is fortunate to have a plethora of publications and together, there is a possibility they could assert their position in the country and avoid closing down, especially as a result of fines for fabricated tax evasion claims. Additionally, in light of the clear impediments to the human right of free speech and the President’s atrocious vocal justifications for murdering journalists, the international community must step in to support not only the ability of journalists to pursue their profession, but also ensure their safety.
Fundamentally, under the Duterte administration, the face of the Philippines’ administration has shifted from one characterized by open democracy, alongside still present corruption, to an oppressive regime with a leader who sees himself as a ‘benevolent dictator.’ As a result, freedom of speech has been limited and fundamental rights and freedoms have been revoked for certain individuals, namely journalists.