President Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo R. Duterte talks to Vice President Ma. Leonor "Leni" Robredo on the phone where he asked VP to be secretary of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) during a press conference on July 7, 2016 at Malacañang. ACE MORANDANTE/Presidential Photographers Division

It’s not so much his liberal use of profanity that separates Rodrigo Duterte from his predecessors, but the residency in his person of both progressive and conservative tendencies.

No other Philippine president can be so described. Benigno Aquino III, for all his lip service to change, was a closet conservative whose main focus was not to change the corruption-ridden machinery of government, but to make it work. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, despite a youth spent in opposition to martial law, was herself a dictator in the making until that ambition was thwarted by citizen resistance.

Joseph Estrada was neither a progressive nor conservative. His presidency was merely another occasion for him to indulge his passion, not for good governance or for the betterment of the lives of the masses he claimed as his constituency, but for multiple households and carousing with his midnight cronies.

Fidel Ramos was on the other hand the true conservative. Armed with an acute sense of how best to protect the status quo, unlike his former military cohorts he preferred weakening the armed social movements through accommodation and compromise rather than through murder and mayhem. His convincing Congress to repeal the anti-subversion law, his administration’s signing the Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantees and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law with the National a democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), and his peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) were shrewdly calculated to lure these groups into the parliamentary arena and to make them eventually irrelevant. (One of Rodrigo Duterte’s closest advisers, Ramos could be a major influence in how the former looks at the causes of unrest in the Philippines and how best to address them.)

Corazon Aquino was a conservative by instinct, class interest and upbringing. Between fighting off coup attempts, she resisted the universal demand for a truly revolutionary land reform law. Her predecessor, Ferdinand Marcos, was neither a conservative nor a progressive, but a certifiable reactionary whose reliance on military power to suppress unrest was premised on the superiority of State and ruling class interests above country and people, making him as true a fascist as Benito Mussolini, who also couched his counterrevolutionary aims in deceptive calls for revolution.

Despite Duterte’s description of himself as a leftist, fears have been expressed over his authoritarian, virtually despotic, do-as-I-say-or-else instincts. But his commitment to resume peace talks with the NDFP, his pledge to release political prisoners involved in the talks, his designation of two nominees of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) to head the departments of Social Welfare and Agrarian Reform, and his declared policy to address poverty through meaningful reforms have encouraged hopes for authentic change in a country long in the iron grip of a murderous ruling elite.

As promising as these progressive initiatives may be, there is reason for concern over his statements — some of which have assumed the force of State policy — on how he intends to address criminality, as well as on his relationship with, and his views on, the press and media.

Duterte’s vow to have Congress restore the death penalty and to make hanging its means of implementation are particularly problematic. If the first is retrogressive, no deterrent to crime, and premised on judicial infallibility, the second is medieval for its inhumanity.

His encouraging the killing of crime suspects who resist arrest, his declaring that he would protect policemen who do so, and his offer of bounties for the capture of suspected drug dealers are equally worrisome. The latter could foment a race among bounty hunters for victims, among whom are likely to be the innocent as well as the guilty, while the former would enhance even further the culture of impunity already prevalent in police and military ranks.

The same dire possibility lurks in Duterte’s statements about the killing of journalists. Whatever their intent, those statements could result in more journalists killed, driven by the perpetrators’ expectations that they will escape punishment.

The Duterte administration has announced the organization of a task force to look into the killing of journalists. Never mind that a number of police and NBI task forces are already in existence: of interest is the conflict between that task force’s presumed purpose of stopping the killings, and Duterte’s previous statements about slain journalists.

Exemption from punishment is at the heart of the culture of impunity. Its enhancement would therefore be in conflict with Duterte’s focus on penalizing wrong-doers. Duterte has erroneously declared that journalists are killed because they’re corrupt. But the reality is that some 90 percent of the 152 killed for their work in radio, television and print since 1986 were exposing corruption and criminality, or were involved in such advocacies as good governance and environmental protection.

A free, competent and honest press can be among Duterte’s most reliable allies in the campaign against corruption, but his antipathy to being asked tough questions and his apparent misreading of the press and media’s role in society have caused him to shut the door to that possibility. An executive order, say Palace sources, will compel executive departments to provide citizens access to government-held information, in partial realization of hopes for the transparency a freedom of information act can enhance. But in negation of that EO’s purpose of enhancing openness in governance, Duterte had peevishly ruled out any interview with privately-owned media, and gave State media the exclusive right to interview him and to cover presidential events such as his inauguration.

The performance of corporate-controlled media in terms of fairness and accuracy is far from perfect. But because of their accustomed way of reporting whatever administration is in power in the most favorable light, State media are even worse — and hardly the most qualified to provide the public unbiased information about what the administration plans to do, is doing, or what its policies and true intentions are.

Democratic governance is premised on the availability of a plurality of information sources, the credibility of which the citizenry can evaluate so it can arrive at some understanding of events as a precondition to active engagement in the public sphere. A single source with the power to screen, modify and even manufacture the information it feeds to non-State media and the public is of no value — is in fact detrimental — to the realization of that democratic imperative.

Those Filipinos who have long hoped for an end to the conflicts that have divided this country since colonial times may have reason to be optimistic about the prospects for achieving the meaningful changes in Philippine society that are the only possible bases for the just and lasting peace that, in so many words, Duterte has promised. But they need to be critical of his less enlightened policies, among them those on human rights and the responsibilities and rights of the press and media. The vigilance of the millions who voted for him in anticipation of authentic change can hopefully keep Duterte firmly on a progressive path.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Image from PCOO)

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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