Melinda Quintos De Jesus


IN 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte stopped the rant and chant about the drug problem in the country and how police should kill, kill, kill to rid us of the plague. It was all he managed to talk about in first and second years as president, as his “war on drugs” left 20,000 dead, according to police statistics. But his turning to other things did not mean that the killings stopped. All over the country, the police have continued their deadly chase for suspects and many more are dying. Sadly, there were enough Filipinos who, like government, thought the drug war as an achievement, despite reports of billions worth of drugs smuggled through customs. But a significant population, mostly the very poor, questioned the murderous method. Media helped to raise the level of protest but those who did most loudly were targeted with threats. The country, the media included, seems more mute about another kind of killing and death as Duterte fixed his aim on selected critics to muzzle their voices and silence their truths. In 2018, he marshaled his forces against the quest for truth, in the media and in the court system, blitzing the law as he did, perverting its meaning and diverting its application in ways manic and obsessed. Proving more complicated than shooting drug offenders, Duterte let others take the offensive, letting his minions argue and debate on his behalf. Having succeeded in throwing out Senator Leila de Lima early in the game, his henchmen aimed their sights on another woman, less vocal than de Lima but by law, equally empowered as the president. Maria Lourdes Sereno, the Philippine Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was ousted from her lofty position through yet another dubious application of law.  When the motion to impeach Sereno floundered in Congress, the ever loyal Attorney General Calida pulled a legal stunt. Like a rabbit out of a hat, quo warranto worked its magic, declaring Sereno unfit for the office she had been holding for the last five years. Ludicrous as it was, the unthinkable happened. There were enough justices in the High Court willing to debase themselves and the process of justice to support the decision, displacing Sereno so the president could seat his toady to lead the High Court. The ouster of Sereno brought down the court in the respect and esteem of the public, including the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP).  Robes and hoods could no more hide the fact that the Supreme Court had become nothing more than the rubber stamp that Duterte supporters had made of Congress. Antonio Trillanes IV was the third victim in the chain of scandalous charges. The senator’s checkered and colorful past recedes in relevance as he set himself apart as the only member of Congress willing to stand up to Duterte with effect. He has consistently and with persistence raised issues of corruption and criminality against Duterte and members of his family. Without Trillanes, we are a nation of sheep. His figure rises nobly enough to overcome any lingering reservations about the man and his intentions. The law suffered another travesty when the same Calida dragged from dusty files the record of Trillanes leading the Magdalo rebellion against military authorities during the Arroyo presidency, questioning the validity of the government’s grant of amnesty which allowed Trillanes to hold government office. A court issued a warrant of arrest when Trillanes could not present the document showing he had applied for the amnesty which he received, the validity of which another court had attested. So far, Trillanes has escaped arrest and imprisonment, but his fate hangs on a balance, it would seem, totally dependent on the how the public will take or accommodate yet another political atrocity. 2018 has left more than just a bad taste in the mouth for many who celebrated its end, noting symptoms of more than just a passing affliction. Such malaise mimics a viral infection of the body politic, an illness that has taken over the vital organs that insurephysical life. The Supreme Court is no longer the last resort for those seeking justice. And Congress fails to stir confidence in their capacity except to legislate for the pleasure of the president. Duterte simply calculated the strokes with which he could shake down the republican system of equal and separate branches of government. At present, the popularity of a president inclined toward despotic rule has not wavered. Alas, the clamor for democracy is not heard. We must ask whether indeed there is hope for our democracy. Our democracy has always been flawed.  But the cycles of election which periodically threw out the scalawags and scoundrels from government may have led many of us to think that the system is strong enough to withstand shock and scandal. But 2018 suggests that the seeds of democracy may have never really taken root. Yes, we have taken to elections, to parliamentary debate and arguments, but such commitments have been merely procedural, fulfilling some formula as set by our leaders. We have learned lessons but only in rote, and such learning does not last. Duterte is not so clever as to have done this all by himself. The truth is we let him. And he did not even need the legal fig leaf of Proclamation 1081. He was not dealing with the likes of Trillanes, but a herd of sheep. Even during his campaign, the media was quick to march to the call of his campaign, covering faithfully the curses, crude jokes, and recording each claim he made that he was not seeking the presidency — which all served to publicize his posture as a reluctant candidate, an ordinary man, a man closer to the people. President Duterte has enjoyed the most compliant coverage of any administration after 1986, with media so ready to record live his every speech, selecting images to enhance his popularity, and later, failing to examine and expose the lapses and gaps of his policies and programs. Yes, there were exceptions. But these lone voices cannot counter the limits that the same press sets to its own autonomy and freedom. The absence of in-depth, analytical reports into issues is remarkable given the proud example of investigative reporting done after 1986 and the lack of reports create a disturbing silence on so many critical developments. CMFR does not think that this decline of truth has been the work only of the Duterte supporters on social media. While most critics have focused on the manipulation of social media by government propagandists, indeed a valid premise; mainstream media must be held accountable for not drawing the line and exuding the values that make the work of journalism different from everything else that passes for news and the free for all self-expression on the internet. The mainstream press community failed to come together to echo the truths validated by journalistic methods. The newsrooms do not as a rule follow up on the leads established by breaking stories done by rival media companies. Divided, the news they produce does not resonate or ripple in the public consciousness, but are lost in the black hole of cyberspace; unlike the repeated, orchestrated propaganda coursing through social media with the help of bots, trolls and sock puppets. Worse, enough reporters and editors, along with media owners were willing to recreate a crony press, much like the newspapers and television networks which served the Marcos era.  Reports repeat statements to satisfy their sources; refraining from questioning sources when they lie. Editors let slip puff and fluff reports to enhance the projection of the one, true leader.  The media had studiously ignored the president’s extended absences because he had declared his health a private matter. In preparing for mid-term elections this year, print and TV news have fallen all over themselves to publicize Duterte’s personally chosen candidates. Moreover, mainstream media was willing to play second fiddle to the influencers and warriors on social media, recounting lies to lend such content the patina of “truthiness.” Social media campaigns to spread political information works. But these were made more effective by journalists in the mainstream who were willing to play the same game. So the crisis of democracy is the crisis of press freedom. This report on the state of the media then should raise a cry from the heart of the ardent champions of press freedom. Is there hope for Philippine democracy?  First, we must ask: Is there hope for press freedom in our times?