The Duterte challenge


With only a few exceptions, the corporate media are failing to provide the citizenry the information it needs to understand what’s going on as the five-week-old Duterte administration pursues an aggressive agenda of governance. While supposedly focused on bringing about the changes this country needs, that agenda is turning into a challenge to the press capacity to contribute to the making of an informed and critical public.

A campaign against the illegal drug trade whose toll in human lives is steadily rising. A parallel policy on human rights that denies these to alleged criminals. A commitment to constitutional amendments in behalf of a nebulous and mostly unexplained concept of federalism. An executive order on freedom of information (FoI) that for all its claims to enhancing transparency essentially mandates the continuity of already existing limits to access to information. A call for peace talks with armed social movements and a failed declaration of a unilateral cease-fire.

As the Duterte administration unveiled these and other initiatives in the name of the change he promised during the campaign, media response has mostly been to file the usual “he said-she said” reports, with hardly any attempt at the analysis an allegedly sovereign citizenry needs to gauge their wisdom, their actual and potential effectiveness, and their value to the progressive transformation of Philippine society.

Implicit in most of the reports on the anti-drug campaign — in which the police have so far killed over 700 alleged drug pushers and even users — is majority media approval, with hardly a trace of any effort to look into mounting claims that many if not most of these were extrajudicial killings (EJKs — the deliberate elimination without trial of politically or socially “undesirables” ).

Despite its obvious inaccuracy and dangerous implications for the Bill of Rights and the rule of law, a statement in Duterte’s July 25 SONA that human rights have been used as a shield for criminality and to “destroy the country” has similarly gone unchallenged in the dominant media. Neither has the call for the constitutional amendments that would supposedly push the country into adopting the federal system — a major step that would impact on the way this country is governed and on the democratization process — been examined. Primarily the media have limited themselves to reporting how Duterte has changed his mind from his previous preference for amendments through a constitutional convention, to Congress’ being convened into a constituent assembly.

To some reporters and broadcast anchors the very concept of federalism itself, which some mindlessly equate with the parliamentary system, has been distressingly alien, with one of the latter declaring in one television report that because federalism “was coming soon,” the country “will soon have a prime minister.”

Absent are the background articles that would explain to the public what federalism would entail; the dearth even of reports merely noting that one of the most obvious examples of the federal system is in the United States, and pointing out that, judging from the statements of Duterte and his allies, his advocacy of federalism is primarily driven by his desire to grant the Bangsamoro a measure of autonomy.

Neither have the media looked into the conflict between Duterte’s much-touted change agenda and the weakening of the central government that could follow the establishment of a federal system. The need to address the unevenness of development among the regions or “states” under such a system due to variations in their resources and incomes has not even been mentioned either. Primarily the media have assumed — as have many other sectors of the population — that federalism would not only be beneficial to all; it could also be achieved overnight.

Much of the media have studiously avoided looking into the quickly declared and as quickly withdrawn declaration of a “unilateral government cease-fire,” despite its possible implications on the fate of the impending peace talks between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). To help the public understand what exactly could have led to the sudden belligerency in Duterte’s more recent statements, beyond merely quoting government spokespersons and by doing a little research — made so much easier in these times by the Internet — the media could have found such documents as a presentation to the United Nations (Do’s And Don’ts Of Sustainable Cease-fire Agreements) by Nicholas Haysom and Julian Hottinger.

Among other imperatives, Haysom and Hottinger emphasize the need for a written text that clearly delineates what the terms of a cease-fire declaration or agreement are. Haysom and Hottinger also point out that “cease-fire agreements typically hinge on specified geographical markers upon which the obligations of respective parties are centered.”

Such “markers” may include “lines of disengagement; lines from which or to which forces are required to withdraw or deploy; assembly points or districts or regions within which forces are required to be confined; demilitarized zones on either side of lines of disengagement or confinement, or elsewhere; the position of monitors,” etc.

A unilateral cease-fire declaration obviously needs to be reciprocated by the other party in a conflict or dispute for it to be of any use. Equally apparent, however, is that the reciprocity cannot be done overnight and that the terms of a mutual cease-fire agreement — only by being mutual can it progress into a truce — have to be carefully studied for any reciprocal cease-fire to be fruitful.

Not only did some of the media refer to the Duterte unilateral cease-fire declaration as a “truce,” neither did they bother to find out what the terms of the declaration, if any, were — if, for example, it included such “markers” as “lines of disengagement,” where government forces would withdraw or deploy, and, equally important, if there were provisions for monitoring the cease-fire by a neutral entity such as, say, observers from the Norwegian government who have been brokering the GPH-NDFP peace talks in Oslo.

None of these issues have even been mentioned in the media. It is easy enough to account for this failure by recalling that the reporting of the ongoing conflicts in the Philippines by the corporate media is driven not only by economic and political biases but also by ideological prejudices. It is also possible that those who own and control the media and their decision-makers in the newsrooms have decided to hold back because they think there should be a “honeymoon period” with the Duterte administration.

But given the seriousness and urgency of such issues as an emerging human rights policy selective in its application; the unremitting killing of small-time, suspected drug pushers; and the fate of the peace talks that have been widely hyped as an important key to authentic progress, observing such a period of non-critical reporting and non-analysis is totally irresponsible.

As past experience has proven, despite the dominance of business and political interests in the corporate media, some leeway is nevertheless available for the creative practitioner to meaningfully report on such crucial issues in behalf of a better informed public. The time to do that is the present, given the Duterte administration’s focus on short-cutting everything, from eradicating the drug problem to ending the conflicts driven by the social, political and economic ills that have haunted this country for decades. That it has so far not been in evidence speaks volumes about the Philippine commercial media’s woefully inadequate capacity to engage the Duterte challenge.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in the Business World
August 5, 2016

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