Journalism in the Philippines has long been a dangerous trade, one that carries a very real risk of murder with little likelihood of accountability. Yet it is vitally important that Filipinos have a robust critical press to question a government up to its neck in human rights abuses. That’s why many are despairing at the news that the authoritarian administration of President Rodrigo Duterte is trying to ban a leading critical outlet, Rappler.
Rappler is a social media-driven digital news platform. Initially based on Facebook, it was founded in 2011 by author and journalist Maria Ressa, who now finds herself cast as an opposition figure – taking her place alongside other notable female figures standing up to Duterte. Many of them are being marginalised, silenced, or worse.
Duterte’s vice-president, Leni Robredo, is effectively gagged by her position in office, and Duterte’s plan to federalise the country’s political system would see her post abolished. Senator Leila De Lima is still in prison on trumped up charges after almost a year; the judicial process is moving at a glacial pace.
By banning Rappler, Duterte is not just removing a key platform for dissent, but one of the vehicles that put him in office – effectively pulling up the ladder behind him. Rappler exposed how Duterte’s campaign and administration deployed an aggressive (often abusive) digital strategy, using an army of trolls against anyone asking critical questions – myself included.
But before he became a serious contender for the presidency, Duterte was all too happy to exploit both Rappler’s rapidly growing and politically engaged young audience and its dynamic platform to speak directly to people through their phones. His strategy provided plenty of video clips for social media, and left traditional outlets lagging behind.
Riding the tiger
Lessons can be learnt from Rappler’s story without doling out blame. It’s hard to assess just how much the site influenced Duterte’s victory, but the questions are awkward enough as it is. Did its journalists ask enough critical questions early on? Did they inadvertently help create this monster? And is digital media responsible for helping breed these leaders and agendas?
After his victory, Duterte initially continued to offer Rappler remarkable access and a stream of lurid quotes, successfully raising his and Rappler’s international profiles. Between repeatedly insulting the Pope (this in a staunchly Catholic country) and former US president, Barack Obama, Duterte took two female journalists (including Rappler’s Pia Ranada) on a “ride-along” through his home town of Davao, where they visited his “watering hole”.
This was a man who has all but admitted to running death squads while he was mayor, yet Rappler publicised his “transformation”. Less than a week later, the other journalist on that assignment, GMA7’s Mariz Umali, was hardly shown much professional respect when Duterte wolf-whistled her on live TV.
It might seem harsh to look back on this tawdry backstory, especially given the country was enthralled by Duterte at the time. But Rappler’s is a cautionary tale. The Philippines needs its journalists to be sceptical and on constant guard. Media outlets who curry favour with leaders can expect no guarantee that those leaders won’t turn on them in the end.
Rappler is just the most recent casualty in Filipino journalism. According to the the International Federation of Journalists, for a quarter of a decade now, only Iraq has been a more dangerous beat. But Duterte is waging a culture war on an already perilously weak fourth estate, mobilising sympathetic forces to frame events in his favour. Witness the viral footage of the BBC’s Jonathan Head being cornered by pro-Duterte blogger Sass Sasot, or the appointment of singer/blogger Mocha Uson to the office of presidential communications.
While Ressa, Rappler’s CEO, is now pitched against Uson in a pantomime tabloid spat, the country slides into authoritarian rule. The unpleasant odour of the Marcos dictatorship, whose legacy Duterte has hardly shied away from, is in the air once again.
Duterte has embarked on various ambitious plans to change the Philippines as he sees fit. He is determined to roll out a dangerous and poorly conceived plan to federalise the country and devolve power away from Manila. Known as #PHederalism, this plan risks legitimising local warlords and clan-based politics, with all the corruption and violence they entail.
Many Filipinos remember the Maguindano massacre before the 2010 elections, where 58 people – including 32 journalists – were hacked to death, allegedly by members of the Ampatuan clan. The perpetrators used an industrial-sized excavator belonging to the provincial government to bury the victims in mass graves. The chief suspect, Andal Ampatuan Sr, head of the notorious clan and elected governor of Maguindanao, died in custody in 2015; the trial of the rest of the clan has barely progressed in five years.
With Rappler muffled, who will be left to ask the tough questions about #PHederalism? Or about justice for those massacred at Maguindano? Or the victims of drug war and Duterte’s notorious death squads? Regardless of who’s asking them, those questions will have to be posed to Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panleo – the Ampatuan clan’s former lawyer. As the Philippines’ authoritarian turn accelerates, the risks that come with dissent and scrutiny are becoming ever more dangerous.
Tom Smith does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.