Duterte, not the pandemic, is biggest threat to PH journalists today


Esguerra is a journalist and an educator. He is a correspondent at
ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC). He also teaches political journalism and media ethics at
the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.  His views do not reflect
those of his employer.


THE BIGGEST threat to journalists in the Philippines today is not the unseen virus quietly spreading across international borders with devastating impact; it’s the familiar figure we see on TV addressing the nation weekly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested populist regimes worldwide and President Rodrigo Duterte’s has been no exception. And like some of his peers elsewhere, his approach to the pandemic has been found wanting despite his so-called popularity within his solid political base.

It’s quite a puzzle really given the way he has been dealing with the pandemic, how he progressed — or regressed — from cockiness and levity to a belated projection of strength and control, primarily by filling his pandemic task force with ex-generals, and with carefully curated optics.

To be honest, the Philippines has come this far in this health crisis, not because of Duterte, but despite him.

When a pandemic cripples the economy, one shifts all government focus to tending to the jobless and the hopeless. But Duterte is of an entirely different breed. He’s all about vicious vindictiveness against critics and petty intolerance of an independent press, which verily explains why, despite the many preoccupations of his administration during the pandemic, he was fixated on ABS-CBN.

Not exactly known for its critical reporting of Duterte, the network angered him just the same over what he felt was an unforgivable insult — the company allegedly took sides during the 2016 campaign and pushed for a different presidential bet. To Duterte, ABS-CBN took a gamble and had to pay by losing its privilege to air on free TV and radio.

So, he deprived ABS-CBN of a new broadcast franchise with the aid of sycophantic congressmen whose position on press freedom and democracy could be negotiated for political expediency.

I covered the congressional franchise hearings and like many of my peers, I found it awkward, having to report about your own company and industry, and even having to explain, mostly to ill-informed Duterte supporters why it’s primarily a press freedom issue more than anything else.

But such has been the success of Duterte, who weaved a narrative that diminishes the role of a free press in society while portraying journalists as hypocrites and paid hacks. The only journalism acceptable to the likes of Duterte, Alan Peter Cayetano, and their ilk is that of subservience and willingness to compromise the truth. Critical reporting, to them, is acceptable only if directed elsewhere. “Independence” is negotiable and false balance is the norm.

It didn’t help that some of our colleagues also framed the ABS-CBN issue primarily from the perspective of employment.

Yes, thousands of ABS-CBN employees lost their jobs in the middle of the pandemic, all thanks to Duterte, Cayetano, and company.

But there’s something much bigger at stake here. Duterte didn’t just take away jobs; he further tightened the noose on a free press that’s already gasping for air under his regime. The pandemic lockdown allowed him to do this because thousands of freedom-loving Filipinos, who would have otherwise taken to the streets, were confined to their homes. Given his administration’s well-oiled propaganda machine online, it became easier to deal with the public outrage.

I heard colleagues say before, “Hey, it’s just ABS-CBN. We still have other news outlets out there.” It’s true but that misses the point altogether. You don’t view the glass half full in the face of a strongman determined to consolidate power, limit the democratic space even further, and force a critical press to its knees even if others still exist. This is no time for petty competition among journalists.

I spent a good number of episodes of my daily political talk program on ANC tackling the issues surrounding ABS-CBN’s franchise. It was important to peel away the layers of deception built by Duterte’s propagandists against the network, but more importantly explain the bigger impact of the issue on the cause of press freedom of democracy.

In some cases, I had to speak with the likes of Secretary Salvador Panelo, the chief presidential legal counsel, who blatantly insisted on air (with his own standees behind him) that Duterte had nothing to do with efforts to shut down ABS-CBN. Not quite surprisingly, online trolls echoed his lie. Unfortunately for them, Duterte ran his mouth and boasted of how he “dismantled” an oligarchy in the country days after the House franchise committee denied ABS-CBN’s bid for a new franchise.

Dealing with sources who blatantly lie in live interviews can be a challenge, but one which can be handled by a journalist’s solid grasp of the issue and ability to stand his ground.

A bigger concern, as manifested in the franchise issue, was the inability to fight one’s fight with clear resolve and fortitude, which allowed the enemies of democracy and press freedom to get their way with relatively little resistance. Such should be the lesson for us from hereon: We fight with greater determination even if those among us directly in the line of fire are unable or unwilling.