The ongoing theatrics between President Rodrigo Duterte and his PDP-Laban underlings is most probably scripted and directed by the same public relations operators who advised Mr. Duterte from 2014 to 2016 to pretend to be uninterested in running for President and to announce his candidacy almost at the very last minute. It’s a replay of that tactic, but seems to have escaped the attention of much of the media and the population.

Mr. Duterte has been saying that he plans to retire when his term ends, and that he is discouraging his daughter from running for President next year. But his PDP-Laban underlings are nevertheless insisting that he should run for Vice President in a Duterte-Duterte team-up. His spokesperson has also announced that he has yet to make up his mind about 2022. Mr. Duterte may yet run — or he may not. But maybe he will — or maybe he won’t.

It isn’t solely Mr. Duterte’s equivocation in 2014-2016 that should be reminding everyone to take what he’s saying today with more than a sackful of salt. Part of the context of this theater of the absurd is that no one, not even his spokesperson, can really tell when his  statements, threats, and other issuances are seriously meant, when he’s just joking, or when he’s run out of profanities and is just filling dead air.

During the 2016 campaign, for example, he said he would jet ski to the Spratlys and plant the Philippine flag there. Some thought he was speaking literally, while others thought that statement was merely figurative and his way of saying that he would defend the country’s rights in the West Philippine Sea. But five years later he labeled those who believed him then “stupid,” and said he was just joking.

He has since made numerous statements that his spokesperson and other hirelings have either had to modify, explain, or even deny altogether. He has said one thing today only to contradict it tomorrow, such as when he denied ordering the police to kill suspected drug pushers and addicts despite his saying so innumerable times, and on many occasions.

However, his conflicting statements not only confuse the public and even his own officials. They also enable him to wash his hands of any responsibility for the sorry state of the country. He and his underlings have had to edit his policy declarations once they lead to such abuses as the police and military’s killing activists, lawyers, human rights defenders and other unarmed civilians, for example.

There is reason in this seeming madness. It is currently most evident in Mr. Duterte and company’s keeping everyone guessing as to his intentions in 2022. Without knowing whom they will face in next year’s elections, some would-be candidates are postponing their own decision on whether to run or not. Those already determined to contest the Presidency, on the other hand, will have to wait until later to craft their campaign strategies, much of which depends on who their opponents will be.

Mr. Duterte and company can thus bide their time until a few months or weeks before May 11, 2022, while their keyboard army of trolls and print and broadcast media hucksters keep their names in the public mind by orchestrating a supposed clamor for them to remain in power. Mr. Duterte only has to announce that in response to that “clamor” he has changed his mind about retiring and will run for Vice President with his daughter.

In addition to the edge over their possible rivals a reprise of 2016 will give them — plus the usual incumbent perks of access to government funding, facilities and organization — is one other advantage. There is also the way the media usually report electoral campaigns, with which public relations tricksters are only too familiar, and which they have been exploiting every election time.

Not only are there the usual media mercenaries who even in-between elections use print, broadcast and online media to paint their patrons in the brightest colors and their rivals in the blackest. Every campaign is also an opportunity for their equally   unethical cohorts to pad their bank accounts by serving as the temporary publicists of this or that politician while, despite an obvious conflict of interest, they continue to report or comment on the elections in the news and opinion sections of their media organizations. They and the pols’ full-time publicists also generate articles in favor of their bosses that some newspapers, broadcast networks and online news sites are only too willing to publish, air or upload.

Part of the reason for this is that because of their accustomed way of covering election campaigns, sooner or later most media groups’ reporting becomes repetitive, tedious and boring. Spin doctors and their fellow mercenaries in the media generate  articles that while slanted for or against a candidate are either more interesting or novel enough to overwhelm the usual coverage of campaign sorties that often consists of  reporting over and over again what a candidate said in this or that town or city. 

The practice puts the candidates with the biggest war chests at an obvious advantage. It adds to their unlimited capacity to take out political ads, pay for poll watchers and observers, hire the usual thugs to intimidate voters, dispense bribes, and recruit into their private armies police and military personnel.

Under these circumstances, and because of what is at stake, the media can help level the playing field by, to begin with, recalling to their audiences how the “I’m-not-running” playbook is again being used to replicate what happened in 2016.

Although the elections are 11 months away, the press also needs to report extensively on the platforms of the contending candidates once it becomes clear who will contest the Presidency and Vice-Presidency against the Duterte combine.

To offset the regime’s advantage in resources, the independent press and media must provide preferential time and space to the pro-democracy opposition forces given the edge in advertising and online reach of the Duterte camp.

Equally important, they must be critical and discerning enough to recognize and reject the deceitful handiwork of the public relations hustlers that, disguised as legitimate news and analyses, manipulate the public into believing even the most outrageous claims.

The bottom line is that under the rule of the current oligarchy, things have so deteriorated as to imperil not only the very lives of millions but also this country’s future. To be of any service to the Filipino people, the press and media must abandon their old ways of covering elections and provide their audiences the information and analysis they need to prevent 2022 from reprising the 2016 disaster. 

The more cynical might well ask what the press and media stand to gain from it. The answer is: everything.

With regime change can come the restoration of the rule of law and the democratic space that have been eroded and restricted by the provincial despotism that has been despoiling this country and its people since 2016. The return of some measure of civility in politics and governance is another possibility. There is as well the increased chances of ending the pandemic and reviving the economy. And most of all is the likely recovery of the rights to free expression and press freedom on which true journalism thrives, and without which authentic change is next to impossible. 

The independent press and media have a country to win and rescue — for their own sake, and for everyone else’s.

First published in BusinessWorld. Screengrab from a PCOO video.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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