Lead by Example
Is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Donald Trump’s Press-Avenging Doppelganger?
Duterte is even more violent in his dislike of the Fourth Estate than his friend Trump, saying: ‘Just because you are a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination.’
Trump apparently enjoys fantasizing about violently dispatching his media critics.
Last month he retweeted a doctored video of himself beating the crap out of a CNN reporter, and Tuesday morning, three days after a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville accelerated his Dodge Challenger and fatally rammed a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 20 and killing paralegal Heather Heyer, Trump retweeted the cartoon image of a speeding train running over yet another CNN journalist.
All of that, however, is simply the figment of a toxic imagination.
But Duterte, a thuggish former mayor of Mindanao’s Davao City who was best known for leading death squads before assuming the presidency of the island nation in June 2016, was taken seriously when he announced at a press conference: “Just because you are a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination. If you are a son of a bitch”—and here he lapsed into his native tongue, Tagalog—“free speech won’t save you, my dear.”
The disturbing similarities between the 71-year-old Duterte and the 71-year-old Trump—who regularly trashes the journalists who cover him as “the enemy of the people,” “scum,” and “fake news,” among other epithets—are a subtext of the first in a series of Vice News reports, airing this Friday on HBO, on global threats to a free press.
“It’s concerning on many levels as it relates to freedom of the press,” said Vice correspondent Gianna Toboni, who spent 10 days in the Philippines last January interviewing free press advocates and Duterte detractors (including Sen. Leila de Lima, who, shortly after Toboni’s cameras departed, was arrested and imprisoned on trumped up drug charges), and shadowing a local reporter covering the seemingly inexhaustible extrajudicial killings.
“There are a lot of parallels,” Toboni told The Daily Beast. “For instance, Duterte only let state-run media cover his inauguration while the independent media had to sit outside. And President Trump cuts out the middleman and goes straight to Twitter to deliver his statements.
“The reason that’s a problem is that it’s the job of journalists, the Fourth Estate, to keep people informed and keep the government in check. When you have a head of state circumventing that process, it becomes very dangerous.”
Press relations aside, the U.S. president has expressed effusive admiration for his Filipino counterpart, a wildly popular politician whose supporters call him “our Trump.” (While Trump’s approval rating is dipping into the low 30s, Duterte’s is approaching 80 percent.)
During an April 29 phone call between the two leaders—a transcript of which was leaked from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs—Trump repeatedly invited Duterte to the White House, and praised him for his brutal war on drugs, which involves sending masked men to gun down thousands of supposed dealers and users without benefit of a trial, let alone charges or even evidence.
“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump gushed to Duterte. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”
While nobody would suggest that Trump would ever attempt to use such bloodthirsty tactics—or, for that matter, threaten reporters with assassination—he seems to share with Duterte certain authoritarian attitudes about the appropriate role of the news media.
As Washington Post Watergate sleuth Carl Bernstein warns in the Vice segment, “We’re in a state of kind of cultural civic war in this country,” adding that Trump is pursuing his anti-media campaign “in a much more aggressive and inhibiting way than [Richard] Nixon ever did.”
Toboni’s report tags Duterte’s Philippines as the planet’s most dangerous country for journalists outside of the shooting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Since 1986, 154 Filipino journalists have been killed on the job—32 of them during the so-called Maguindao Massacre of 2009, in which a local candidate and his entourage, including a huge contingent from the press corps, were kidnapped and murdered by his political opponents.
In Toboni’s report, press advocate Melinda Quintos de Jesus, director of the Philippines’ Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, claims that all of the journalists’ murders over the past three decades have yielded only two criminal convictions.
Intimidation and physical threats of violence are standard, with the powers and their henchmen telling faultfinding reporters, “We know where you live, we know where your family is.”
The result, says Quintos de Jesus, is that understandably cautious Filipino journalists frequently self-censor their reports about government malfeasance.
In such an authoritarian atmosphere, Bernstein notes, “if you cut off the flow of freedom of information, the people are going to stay in power.”
Toboni, meanwhile, said other similarities between Duterte and Trump include their innate understanding of the power and uses of celebrity.
While President Trump continues to stage raucous campaign rallies that resemble rock concerts (punctuated by thousands of supporters chanting “Lock her up!” at the mention of Hillary Clinton), Duterte produces actual rock concerts, featuring the reigning Filipino pop stars of the moment and Manila’s singing and dancing chief of police.
“The chief of police is the mastermind of the war on drugs,” Toboni said about one strange encounter, “and we actually thought we were in the wrong place. We thought we were going to attend a press conference and instead it was a music festival with thousands of people under the age of 30, with food stands, and concession stands, and people holding up their cellphones and taking pictures.
“The main event came when the chief of police walked out onstage with his whole team of security, and instead of making a speech, he breaks out into song and starts singing with the pop stars.”
Toboni added that both Trump and Duterte “have this same nationalist agenda. They have similar personalities. They both use crass language to appeal to a certain demographic and they both present themselves as anti-elitist. I think there are a lot of parallels between the two, and their attitude about freedom of the press is definitely part of that.”