Philippines’ Duterte Sets Ominous Tone For Impending Presidency

President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has already proved true to controversial form, drawing condemnation for comments made in regards to murdered journalists in the Philippines. On Monday, two United Nations Independent Experts released a damning statement against Duterte’s comments, made at a press conference on May 31. The statement called on Duterte to “stop instigating deadly violence immediately”, after he made several comments that justified the killing of journalists who deserved to die for being corrupt.

UN Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions, Cristof Heyns, suggested that Duterte’s words amounted to “incitement to violence and killing” and that his comments were “irresponsible in the extreme”.

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye expressed extreme concern about how the comments would be interpreted by Duterte’s audience, suggesting that “justifying the killing of journalists on the basis of how they conduct their professional activities can be understood as a permissive signal to potential killers that the murder of journalists is acceptable in certain circumstances and would not be punished”. He went on to say that “such provocative messages indicate to any person who is displeased by the work of a journalist or an activist, for example, that they can attack or kill them without fear of sanction”. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines also spoke out against the comments, releasing a statement that said it “is appalling that the President-elect Rodrigo Duterte should justify the murder of journalists in the country by playing the corruption card”. It also went on to say that “murder is no joke. Neither is press freedom”.

Whilst the statement was published on the UN Human Rights website, the UN experts quoted remain independent of the UN; and aside from their comments, there has been little response from the international community to Duterte’s incendiary remarks. Media outlets were quick to condemn Duterte’s shocking attitude, which included a comment that Jun Pala, a journalist, politician and critic of Duterte who was murderd in 2003, “was a rotten son of a bitch. He deserved it”. However, perhaps the lack on international incredulity is based on the fact that inflammatory, violence-condoning remarks are not out of character for Duterte. Last month, Duterte essentially advocated for extrajudicial killings, saying he wants to empower security forces to “shoot and kill” anyone that resists arrest, as well as campaigning for the return of the death penalty. Indeed, it has been his ‘tough’ stance on corruption and crime that saw him win a landside victory in May, his strident anti-crime platform winning him around six million more votes than his closest competitor according to the BBC.

Yet whilst the Filipino electorate may be looking for a ‘wild-card’ to shake up the entrenched status quo, which includes endemic poverty and profound inequality, Duterte’s appetite for violence is alarming. The soon-to-be leader of a supposedly democratic nation suggesting that

“freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong”

is not a promising sign for what is to come. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 75 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines since 1992, which makes Duterte’s sentiment that “just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempt from assassination” particularly chilling.

Furthermore, on June 4th, when Duterte addressed a huge crowd celebrating his presidential victory, he effectively said he supports vigilantism, suggesting that anyone who helped him in his war against criminals would be rewarded. At the rally, he encouraged citizens with guns to shoot and kill drug dealers to rid the country of them. Talk such as this is an ominous indication of how Duerte intends to run his presidency as he begins his six-year term, raising serious questions about how peace can be upheld in a country whose leader is advocating for the intentional lethal use of force.