Duterte during the 121st anniversary of Jose Rizal’s martyrdom

Almost every government official has the same message whenever the birth or death anniversaries of the country’s heroes are marked: it is to remember what they did for the country, and to emulate their patriotism and devotion to the welfare and betterment of the nation.

On the 121st death anniversary of Dr. Jose Rizal, for example, President Rodrigo Duterte told Filipinos to remember the national hero’s “ultimate sacrifice for the sake of our country,” and to “reflect on his patriotism as we strive to continue his work of building a more united, peaceful and prosperous Philippines.”

Many will take exception to that statement’s presumption that the country is at peace, united, and prosperous today, and that the Duterte regime is adding to those already existing qualities, more than a century after the Spanish colonial government executed Rizal by musketry in Bagumbayan on December 30, 1896. The truth is that the realization of those aspirations has continued to elude the people of these isles after nearly 50 years of US occupation, two world wars, and a succession of supposedly independent administrations.

The Marcos terror regime still leads in brutality and destruction the pack of predators that it has been this country’s misfortune to have for so-called leaders. But that distinction is rapidly being contested by its successors including the present one, whose antipathy to a sustainable peace and the authentic reforms the country desperately needs has divided Filipinos more than at any other time since 1946.

In the furtherance of its regressive and unpatriotic policies, the Duterte regime has used State violence and violated human rights on a scale that has become a global scandal. But it is also threatening to place the country under open authoritarian rule: to do even worse than the extrajudicial killing of some 14,000 supposed addicts and petty drug pushers at the hands of an already abusive police force it has empowered to kill with unprecedented impunity.

The imposition of martial rule nationwide — or of a false and deceptive “revolutionary” government — will mean, among others, the silencing of those dissenters, human rights defenders, social and political activists, regime critics, and independent media practitioners committed to the imperative of truth-telling in these times of national peril.

The campaign against them is already ongoing in the form of their constant demonization and harassment, and the dissemination of false and misleading “information” through the government media system, its online trolls, and its bought-and-paid-for hacks in print and broadcasting. It is at work as well through the harassment, arrest, and assassination of those community, worker, farmer, Muslim and Lumad leaders who have risked everything to disseminate the truth to a woefully uninformed public.

Mr. Duterte already had harsh words against the press and media even before he came to power. He and some of his officials have accused journalists of corruption, bias and inaccuracy, and insulted and abused them publicly. He has also threatened media organizations for doing their job of reporting and commenting on what his administration is doing.

The latest regime salvo against truth-tellers is Mr. Duterte’s claim that some journalists are “with the Left,” or are even “cadres,” presumably of the New People’s Army (NPA) or the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). While he did not provide any details on their alleged left-wing links, that statement, made two weeks ago during a radio interview, was made in the context of the continuing killing of journalists in the Philippines, the impunity of the perpetrators, and his declaration that both the CPP and the NPA are “terrorist” organizations. The police and military could interpret the Duterte statement as a declaration of open season on the harassment and even elimination of those journalists they want to silence.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) has accurately described Mr. Duterte’s allegation as “a potential death warrant against colleagues.” The Union warned that “in a country that remains one of the deadliest in the world for journalists, there is cause to worry about this irresponsible claim from the highest elected official of the land.”

While it specially endangers journalists in the Cordillera region, whom Mr. Duterte singled out for abuse, NUJP said his “irresponsible claim” also casts “a chilling effect on journalists who intend to cover the communist rebels in continuing efforts to better explain the roots and directions of the close to half a century-old civil strife” between the Philippine government and the CPP-directed NPA.

“At worse,” continued NUJP, “it would embolden those, including state agents, who seek to silence us by giving them the convenient cover of counter-insurgency.”

“We fear,” the NUJP statement declared, “that it will not be long before Duterte directly targets the critical media in his government’s efforts to stamp out dissent.” The organization has therefore called on “the independent Philippine media and all Filipinos who cherish our rights and freedoms to stand together in common cause and oppose all attempts to silence us.”

Silencing dissenters and critics will almost certainly be part of open authoritarian rule to prevent everyone including independent journalists from explaining to the people the social, economic and political roots of the ongoing civil war the regime has chosen to prolong rather than end through a peace agreement based on social, economic and political reforms. By doing so it would bar responsible and independent practitioners from discharging the fundamental communication responsibility of truth-telling.

The Marcos dictatorship silenced the Philippine press and media and prevented them from providing the information on vital issues the public needed. There is no reason to believe that any other authoritarian regime will not do the same because accurate and relevant information would challenge such a regime’s legitimacy and authority and expose the sordid realities of its rule.

These were precisely the reasons for which Jose Rizal was executed by the Spanish colonial order. He was not directly involved in the Revolution of 1896. But in the eyes of that regime, Rizal’s offense was his exposing, through his novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, and his essays and other writings, the horrors and brutality of colonial rule.

Some historians have disparaged Rizal for his preference for education rather than revolutionary violence as the means of addressing the Filipino predicament with Spanish colonialism. But his writings were nevertheless crucial in shedding much needed light on the true state of the Philippines and its people under colonial rule as the vital condition to the Revolution’s capacity to overthrow it.

Mr. Duterte is quite right. Filipinos must remember and appreciate Rizal’s patriotism. But he himself should realize that Rizal’s devotion to his country and people consisted of his risking liberty and life itself for the sake of the truth as a fundamental weapon in the human enterprise of interpreting the world in order to change it.

That is precisely the purpose, the reason for being, of every independent journalist, human rights defender, social reformer, and authentic revolutionary. But that reality has apparently escaped the understanding and even the awareness of the Duterte regime, the policies, statements and acts of which have been focused on the very opposite of the truth that all of human history attests will set us free.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo 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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