At a press conference in May, a few weeks after he was elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte was asked how he plans to address the disturbingly high murder rate of journalists in the country. Since 1992, the Philippines has seen 75 reportersmurdered, many of them investigative journalists working to uncover government corruption, making it the third most dangerous country in the world for members of the media, behind Iraq and Syria. Instead of proposing a way to make life safer for reporters, the president-elect offered his opinion on the real problem underlying the the issue. “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch,” he told the assembled crowd of reporters. “Most of those killed, to be frank, have done something. You won’t be killed if you don’t do anything wrong.”
Duterte, who won the popular vote based on a zero-tolerance crime platform that includes killing 100,000 drug dealers and other criminals within his first six months as president, went on to accuse most of the country’s media of being corrupt. He mentioned a reporter who had been killed in 2003, saying he did “not want to diminish [the journalist’s] memory” but that he had been “a rotten son of a bitch” who “deserved it.” The president-elect also had a message, one that sounds a lot like a tacit warning, for journalists who might write defamatory pieces.
“That can’t be just freedom of speech,” he said, according to reports. “The constitution can no longer help you if you disrespect a person.”
This behavior—the threats, the swearing, the belligerence—is par for the course with Duterte, who campaigned as an unpolished, straight-shooting outsider from the country’s less-prosperous south running against a political machine controlled by genteel northern elites. Outgoing president Benigno Aquino III is the scion of a political dynasty, while Duterte’s rivals for the office included the grandson of a former president, the daughter of two Filipino movie stars and the current vice president. The 40 richest Filipino families control 76 percent of the country’s wealth, and nearly all political seats have been handed down through the oligarchy’s ruling class, according to the New York Times. Amidst a sizable number of Filipino citizens, feelings of alienation, powerlessness and anger have been brewing for decades.
Politics watchers underestimated Duterte for much of his campaign (it’s tempting to write “until it was too late”), assuming he would talk himself out of the race. The mayor of the city of Davao for two decades, Duterte once gave an interview while carrying “a .38 pistol tucked in his waistband,” and regularly rode a Harley to search the town’s streets for criminals. (His nicknames include “The Punisher” and “Duterte Harry,” like the vigilante movie cop.)
Over the course of the campaign, Duterte bragged about running death squadsthat killed 1,700 suspected Davao lawbreakers, said he would give police carte blanche to murder alleged criminals on sight, vowed he would dismantleCongress if it disagrees with him, claimed he couldn’t offer policy specifics because they are “secret,” and was caught on camera bemoaning not taking part in the gang rape of an Australian nun killed during a 1989 prison uprising. “I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing,” he recounted about the moment he saw the woman’s corpse. “But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”
His poll numbers only grew larger in the weeks that followed.
If the 71-year-old Philippine leader’s campaign of spectacle over substance reminds you of anyone—aside from all the murders, of course—you are not the only one. Duterte has been dubbed the “Trump of the East,” a title he has rejected with the defense that “Trump is a bigot; I am not.” (It is not the best sign when bloodthirsty, self-proclaimed dictators want to distance themselves from you.) While our current potential Nutjob-in-Chief does not claim to have personally murdered anyone, there are definite parallels. Trump had a beef with the Pope over the border wall; Duterte cursed the Pope for backing up traffic. Duterte wants to torture suspected criminals; Trump wants to torture suspected terrorists. Trump’s foreign policy toward China amounts to calling its peoplemotherfuckers; Duterte’s consists of riding a jet ski to plant a Philippine flag on contested lands. Trump and Duterte both claim to be champions of women even while saying outlandishly sexist things. They also share an apparent need to publicly discuss their penises in greater detail than any proposed policy plans.
There’s also this: On the strength of vague or wholly unfeasible or unconstitutional policies that promise to “take back” their respective countries—Duterte from lawless elements, Trump from Mexican/gay/immigrant/Muslim “un-American others,” and both from elites—the two have soared to political prominence on a wave of extremist rhetoric. Duterte’s anti-crime bluster has appealed to a marginalized socio-economic underclass long ignored by Philippine oligarchs, one that feels terrorized by rising violent, often drug-related, crime rates. Trump’s followers, the least empowered of the U.S.’s dominant white majority, feel besieged by imagined enemies that threaten to take away the tatters of privilege they maintain. Though both groups are angry and fearful, to treat Trump and Duterte merely as protest votes in their respective countries would be a mistake. Both strongmen have put on elaborate election-season sideshows that eventually took over the main stage. They crudely and cruelly double-talked their way into the hearts of desperate people who have a bone to pick with the establishment.
While neither Duterte nor Trump may know (or even care) much about politics or policy, they have skillfully manipulated the media, making inflammatory comments and then waiting for the free press to roll in. When the media fails to do their bidding, either by asking substantive questions or writing critical stories, they have been reflexively retaliatory. Demagogues and dictators have notoriously fragile egos; self-aggrandizing narcissists with mile-wide insecurity streaks, they act viciously cruel toward others, but are pathologically hypersensitive to even the mildest critique. Obsessed with power and control, both Trump and Duterte have attempted to strongarm the free press. Often, their supporters are all too happy to aid in their dirty work.
Following his remarks essentially sanctioning the murder of journalists, Duterte did not issue an apology—that’s not exactly his style—but released a retraction of sorts. In the statement, he says he does not “condone nor tolerate killing of journalists, regardless of the motive of the killers, or the reason for their killing,” which is not the most reassuring thing to hear from a world leader. The message might have seemed more convincing had it not come on the heels of a press conference, called by Duterte himself, during which the president-elect spent 20 minutes berating a press corps he claimed comprised just three groups: righteous truth-tellers, paid political “mouthpieces” and corrupt “low lifes.”
“Do not ever think that you are in a field of purity,” Duterte stated, mid-rant. He went on to make it clear that he was ready, even gearing up, for a fight.
“I can spend the next six years of my presidency exposing you and attacking you…There are politicians who would accept and swallow [your attacks]. Not me,” Duterte said, more than oncewarning reporters not to “fuck with” him. In the days that followed, the politician vowed he would be boycotting the media, refusing to giving interviews until the end of his six-year term.
About a month before Duterte’s combative press conference, Donald Trump called a media briefing, ostensibly to address questions about money he claimed to have raised for veterans. Instead, the event instead turned into an opportunity to heap insults upon the press-filled captive audience. The GOP presidential nominee spent most of the conference criticizing the political media, even calling one ABC reporter in the room a “sleaze.”
“I think the media is frankly, made up of people [who] in many cases, not in all cases, are not good people,” Trump stated. “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people I’ve ever met.”
The GOP presidential nominee has made name-calling the press a key part of his campaign, regularly referring to reporters “as ‘scum,’ ‘slime,’ ‘dishonest’ and ‘disgusting’” at campaign stops, according to CNN. In February, Trumpannounced that as president, he would “open up our libel laws” so that when outlets such as the New York Times write “hit pieces,” he can “sue them and win money”—a threat that seems legally and constitutionally unlikely. While he stops short of suggesting that murder might be a proper response to his media problem, he has sought revenge against outlets that have produced unfavorable coverage. One Politico reporter was given press credentials, only to be stripped of them after he wrote a critical piece on a Trump staffer. The Washington Post—a major news outlet that Trump just announced will no longer be allowed to cover his compaign rallies—reports that journalists from Buzzfeed, Fusion TV, Foreign Policy, Politico, Daily Beast, Mother Jones, Gawker, the Huffington Post, the New Hampshire Union Leader and the Des Moines Register have all been banned from the candidate’s events at various points. “Univision’s Jorge Ramosand [Trip] Gabriel of the New York Times have been ejected during his events,”the Post notes. The list of print, television and online journalists Trump has disparaged via social media is far too long to include here, and growing all the time.
Then there was the way Trump endlessly hammered Megyn Kelly with overtly gendered attacks when she attempted to get him to address past sexist remarks, and the Washington Post put together a very long list of female journalists Trump has gone after using words like “dummy” and “disaster.” Duterte cat-calledreporter Mariz Umali at a press event, and Trump called the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah “beautiful” after a meeting with the paper’s editorial board. Roger Stone, Trump’s unofficial attack dog, has a long and storied history of sending blatantly racist and misogynist tweets about reporters he disagrees with, which he recently tried in vain to scrub from his tweeting history. Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was arrested, but not formally charged, for attacking a female reporter in an incident that was caught on video. In Duterte’s case, things get even darker: his lawyer-turned-campaign spokesperson is Salvador Panelo, who served as defense attorney for the alleged architect of the Maguindanao massacre, in which 34 journalists were among the 50 dead. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls the tragedy the “single deadliest event for the press” since it began keeping records more than two decades ago.
Cults of personality, like those of Trump and Duterte, are filled with disciples whose extreme enthusiasm tips toward fanaticism. Campaigns that strike such bitter, ugly, violent chords beget tonally similar displays from supporters, all riled up on hate. Trump actively sows seeds of resentment toward media among his followers, pointing out members of the press at campaign rallies and inviting his supporters to mock them. At a campaign stop in Iowa, journalists who were briefly held outside in the cold were reportedly taunted by Trump supporters who yelled things like, “Let ’em freeze!” Sopan Deb, a CBS News reporter of South Asian descent, has had Trump supporters ask if he’s taking pictures for ISIL (“Yeah, I’m talking to you,” the questioner said when Deb shot him a stunned glance) and been told he should go back to Iraq, a country he’s never even visited. At one event, Trump had followers snap photos of press in the pen. “Why don’t you take those cameras and spin them around a little bit and show them?” Trumpsaid, egging on the crowd. “Spin them around! They don’t want to do that folks.”
Duterte’s overzealous fans are similarly aggressive toward the politician’s critics. A student some perceived as disrespectful to the candidate during a Q&A at the University of the Philippines received death threats. Raissa Robles, an investigative journalist who has written critical pieces on Duterte in the past, has been the frequent target of online harassment.
“What I’ve noticed is that Duterte’s supporters are especially vicious,” Robles told David Greene of NPR. “I’ve been threatened on Facebook and Twitter. I get tweets like, ‘Would you like me to bury you alive?’ And another tweet says, ‘I hope you are raped from behind.’ I have never been the recipient of such vicious language in all my years as a journalist.”
Robles, who said she is “pretty nervous” about Duterte’s attacks on journalists, describes the thinking of many in the president-elect’s base. Change a few words here and there and she could just as easily be speaking about Trump’s fans.
“I think they’re driven by the idea that Duterte means well and Duterte will save the Philippines and will reform society,” said Robles. “And also, they’re angry at people who do not see what they see or who try to counter them. They do not have any middle ground. Duterte has released the monster in the Filipino. I’m sorry to say that. But it’s something that I haven’t seen for a long, long time. The last time I saw it was during the Marcos dictatorship.”
Duterte will be sworn into office on June 30; Trump has a very real chance of winning the presidency in November. The consequences of both scenarios may be disastrous for media. Though Trump will have a harder time changing laws than he thinks, he could appoint Supreme Court justices who challenge media protections currently in place. Apretty litigious guy to begin with, Trump might make good on his campaign promise and file frivolous lawsuit after frivolous lawsuit to intimidate cash-strapped media outlets into avoiding unflattering stories. His spokesperson, Michael Cohen (like Duterte, Trump turned his lawyer into his flack) has been described as a pitbull; when he learned a Daily Beast reporter was primed to write about spousal rape allegations against Trump, Cohen left him a series of threatening messages, including one in which he reportedly stated, “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.” I imagine a Trump press office would be brimming with similarly charming types.
“This would all be amusing and annoying if he were just another rich guy who wanted to manage his press coverage,” David Chavern, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America writes at Huffington Post. “But he is making the case that he should have the highest elective office in the land—and that disdain for the role of a free press in our society is acceptable for someone who could hold that role. Moreover, he is convincing large segments of the public that it’s acceptable too.”
Trump and Duterte don’t have to like the press, but they should be legally bound to let them do their job. While politicians aren’t known for being the most transparent figures, Trump’s and Duterte’s threats and coercion take thing to a whole new level. A free press is the cornerstone of any democracy, tasked with asking precisely the kind of tough questions Trump and Duterte suggest are unfair. The job of our media—one it doesn’t always live up to, but should be working vigorously toward—is to uncover and report on abuses of power, to ensure leaders are held accountable and to shine a light on issues of the day. It should inform citizens of the realities of society and provide insights so they might change them. Fascists and tyrants don’t want an informed citizenry because it threatens their power, which is exactly why a free press is indispensable to a civil society. Trump and Duterte fundamentally misunderstand the role of free media, and prove they have no respect for democratic ideals.
“The question is, what kind of precedent does this set for future presidential campaigns?” Jason Noble, a reporter for the Des Moines Register, asked in an interview with the Washington Post. “If you can slash and burn your way to the nomination, does that send a message?”
It’s a valid question. Unfortunately, it seems safe to assume that political bullies have a new and improved blueprint for tangling with the press. Patricia Evangelista and Nicole Curato, writing at Rappler, see in Duterte the retelling of a dangerous and familiar tale:
This has been a story that has been told many times before. It begins with a suffering people, vulnerable to the rabble rouser standing on a soapbox. It comes with fear-mongering, with urgency, with slogans and promises. A line is drawn, us versus them. Cull all the critics, watch out for the outspoken, lynch the detractors—Dear Leader will save us, if only we let him. Some liberties can be given up, for the sake of order. The Nazis began with the burning of books—they ended with a holocaust that annihilated at least 15 million.
“We write this as a warning,” they state in conclusion. “We hope to be proven wrong.”
Duterte was voted into office a week after their plea was posted. Perhaps we should keep an eye trained on how events unfold in the Philippines, and that includes watching how Duterte treats the media and the journalists working within it. Sadly, it may offer insights about the future of our own free press.
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.