Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte at a press conference at Hotel Elena in Davao City on August 8, 2016. (Karl Alonzo/PPD)

In 1987 Corazon Aquino filed a libel complaint against the late columnist Luis Beltran for saying that she hid under her bed during a coup attempt by military goons who thought her soft on communism. She went on to break precedent by testifying against him in court, before a judge who was her appointee.

Her successor, Fidel V. Ramos, would call and berate opinion writers whose views about his administration he couldn’t abide. But to get on their good side he also had them for breakfast and lunch a number of times.

Joseph Estrada complained about unfair and biased media coverage, launched an advertising boycott campaign against his least favorite broadsheet, and caused the shutdown and change of ownership of another by filing a P100 million libel suit against it.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s nearly decade-long watch was distinguished by her husband’s filing 11 libel suits against 46 reporters and editors, a spike in the killing of journalists, their surveillance during the 2006 state of emergency she declared, the labeling of several media organizations as “enemies of the state” and the inclusion of some media practitioners in the military’s “order of battle.” A warlord family that was among Arroyo’s allies is also accused of masterminding the 2009 massacre of 58 men and women including 32 journalists in the Maguindanao town of Ampatuan.

Benigno Aquino III used every opportunity to criticize the media for their alleged bias, inaccuracy, and focus on his love life while belittling the significance of the continuing killing of journalists during his six-year watch.

Before them all was Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., who accused the media of conspiring with the oligarchy and the Communist Party to bring down the Republic, and proceeded to have editors, reporters, columnists and broadcasters arrested en masse when he declared martial law in 1972, with some of them being forcibly disappeared in the process.

No Philippine President has ever been happy with the press and media. Some have gone to great lengths to express their displeasure and to show journalists who has the real power in this country (despite the illusions of many media practitioners, it’s not the press).

Rodrigo Duterte is no exception. But compared to Marcos, Estrada and Arroyo, Mr. Duterte has so far not translated his contempt for the media into such draconian measures as libel suits, advertising boycotts, and imprisonment — although it’s safe to assume that the military list of “enemies of the state” and its “order of battle” still contain the names of some journalists and journalists’ groups.

Mr. Duterte, however, has become many journalists’ worst nightmare for three reasons.

The first is his unfamiliarity with what is widely assumed to be appropriate presidential discourse, meaning making announcements and statements fit for polite company. As the entire planet knows by now, Mr. Duterte is far from polite, raining profanities not only on heads of state but even on the Pope. Journalists are neither presidents nor God’s earthly representatives, but for some reason expect better treatment than Barack Obama and Pope Francis from Mr. Duterte.

The second reason is Mr. Duterte’s habit of saying the most outrageous and therefore most media-quotable statements, and later, his spokespersons’ declaring that he never said them, or that he said something else.

Sometimes Mr. Duterte himself denies saying them, a recent example being his declaring in a speech in Bukidnon that he was sorry if the poor are killed in the course of his so-called “war” against illegal drugs, but that it is the poor who’re involved in the trade, not the rich. Because media do not only report events but also interpret them, they have naturally and logically concluded from those statements that the anti-drug campaign is mostly directed against the poor.

Mr. Duterte described that inevitable conclusion as an example of bias, accused the media of corruption and of being run by an oligarchy, and between the usual profanities said that what he didn’t like about being president was his having to face journalists.

Forget the nonsense his spokespersons are peddling that he wasn’t attacking the entire media community, only one broadsheet and a TV network. He was, in the first place, only using the two media organizations as examples of what he said was wrong with the country. In the second place, his saying he didn’t like facing journalists suggests he doesn’t like being asked questions, which are the stock-in-trade of reporters.

The third reason has to do with Mr. Duterte’s reputation not only for insulting journalists, but also for his kill-them-all approach to crime, for which he has been accused of encouraging or at least tolerating the murder of suspected criminals, as well as of a vigilante turned broadcaster critical of his administration in Davao city when he was mayor. Add to that his campaign to restore the death penalty, his favoring hanging as a means of State executions and the death toll in the “war” on drugs, and you have the truly unprecedented sense among journalists that Mr. Duterte could yet do something even worse than file libel suits against them.

To contest the implication that the media are corrupt, biased and in business only for profit, one of the two media organizations Mr. Duterte singled out as recipients of his choicest expletives described itself, in so many words, as accurate, fair, honest and moved only by public interest and the purest of motives. (I suppose that means it never had a story on its front page which said someone who was still breathing had been executed, and has never slanted reports on mining to favor its owners’ interests.). For its part, the National Union of Journalists (NUJP) threw back at Mr. Duterte his accusation that journalists are rude, which confirms that it’s his manners that make many journalists uncomfortable — but which is hardly the point.

What’s really crucial is whether Mr. Duterte will do something nasty about his negative opinions of the media, since he seems obsessed with the idea of declaring martial law as a “solution” to the country’s problems — and Filipinos should know by now (but don’t) that among the first casualties of such a declaration will be the media.

In such troubling times as these journalists need to close ranks and to be vigilantly committed not only to their duty to report and interpret a problematic and menacing presidency, but also to the protection of their Constitutionally-guaranteed independence. To do so with credibility, however, requires actual adherence to the ethical and professional standards of journalism rather than just proclaiming it.

Mr. Duterte’s claims of inaccuracy, bias and corruption may not be true of the entire media community, or true all the time for the two media organizations he singled out for verbal abuse. But they do happen, and contrary to the pious assertions of some editors, reporters, and journalists’ groups, they haven’t earned the halos and grown the wings of angels just because they’ve been insulted by the latest example of voter cluelessness.

Because some of them do distort the facts, are too stupid or malicious to know the difference between fact and opinion, are biased for the rich and powerful, and/or barter their independence for the usual envelope, journalists have to be reminded of the need for accuracy, fairness and autonomy from time to time.

This is one of those times, thanks to a President’s open and loud antipathy to a community whose capacity for self-criticism is inversely proportional to its self-love, sense of entitlement and absurd claims to virtue. The regime they love to hate is unwittingly issuing the media a wake-up call. Journalists should heed it instead of getting on their high horse and declaring themselves perfection itself, and God’s gift to all mankind.

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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