Executive Director, CMFR
MIDTERM MEASURE OF THE PRESIDENTIAL PERFORMANCE
IT IS hard to believe that Duterte has passed the mid-term of his administration, a point when most leaders begin to show scars of political battle, surface wounds from skirmishes with would be opponents. At 74, the man has secured his hold over a political alliance cobbled with seeming haste to gain electoral victory in 2016. Most of his loyal slate of candidates confirmed his control, making it to the magic 12 in 2019’s senatorial polls.
But the man is showing his age, and the discomforts of duty are a visible burden he carries around when he is seen in public. Enough occasions have shown his physical decline due to diseases which he had enumerated in the past. And yet he has resisted the obligation to have an official physician brief the public about his state of health, perhaps to dispel the inevitability of being a lame-duck president.
Through all of 2019, the sheer lack of presence could have affected his credibility and his control. But after three years of his voice drowning out other political voices, the silence of the president seems to go unnoticed, as a chorus of supporters take over, led by the spokesperson, presidential acolytes and others whose political ambitions Duterte endorsed to voters.
The startling phenomenon of the absent president stands out more for the fact that it is among the underreported aspects of this presidency. His henchmen are quick to cite his age and the backbreaking demands of the office, requiring him to “rest” every now and then, asking the media to respect his need for personal time and his privacy.
As Media Times reviews the major events of the past year, it notes that media have been generous, picking up what Bong Go says about what Duterte thinks. It is a media mostly silent about the president’s condition or state of mind. Indeed, having displayed his quickness to anger, his pique and long-held grievance over past offences, Duterte had succeeded to instill fear, if not among journalists, then among those owning news organizations.
Most reports relay what recording gadgets pick up, statements which are often reduced to soundbites. News accounts are now mere stenographic notes of what was said by whom about a development or an event.
Given the lack of inquiry, investigation, even interpretation, is it any wonder that this mostly absent president has retained his high popularity and positive approval ratings, confirmed by quarterly polls since his election in 2016. The election of his protégés and political allies helped to validate survey findings. Media’s coverage of these high approval ratings have given more prominence to these numbers, but sideline other factors such as the disapproval of the president’s China “pivot,” the continued killings of drug suspects, and economic legislation which raised the price of rice and other basic goods.
We know little about the stories of fear felt in certain communities, the sense of being watched, of being subjected to surveillance. There is little discussion of the ubiquitous use of taxpayers’ money for propaganda such as false numbers to enrich the government’s legacy claims as well as propaganda designed to tar and threaten certain individuals or organizations who are seen as “enemies of the state.” Only during the period of Martial Law had the operations of a police state become so visible; and as similarly, left out of the news.
It is not so surprising then that most respondents who are asked add to the affirmation of Duterte’s popularity and approval.
Perhaps, it is it too much to ask journalists in the country to capture the essential contradiction that the Duterte administration represents: sustained presidential popularity in the midst of disaster and economic woes; the ship of state sailing through turbulent waters, hardly listing.
At some point in the future, Filipinos will have to evaluate how the media contributed to this situation. When most of the coverage barely scratches the surface of the reality, when reporters are warned away from negative stories, when journalists can’t work their way through the maze of contradictory views and opinions, the lies win, the deception accepted as truth by the public.
The burden of responsibility to find the truth about this presidency is not media’s alone. But journalism is a good place to start, because the delivery of news and commentary makes up one of the most valued forms of human communication.