MANILA -- Early in President Rodrigo Duterte’s term, a trusted confidant floated the idea of a “constitutional dictatorship” granting the former city mayor expansive executive and legislative powers.
Three years later, the president is nowhere near such immense powers, his spokesman and chief legal counsel said, but critics insist this does not mean the Philippines isn’t on a path to authoritarianism.
One indicator, said journalism professor Danilo Arao, is the “chilling effect” on the news media brought about by the President’s continuous attacks on select media organizations.
A recent Social Weather Stations survey showed free expression remained “very strong” under Duterte, but Arao said “it’s a different matter altogether when you look at the state of the press.”
A media group earlier compiled 128 cases of attacks on journalists, including physical assault and online harassment, under the Duterte administration.
These include a ban on Rappler reporters from covering the president, and several cases filed against managers of the news website.
“Basically, there is an illusion of freedom of the press,” Arao told ABS-CBN News, “given the fact that many of us are on social media right now, and compared to other countries that have restrictive social media use, internet here is relatively free.”
Political science professor Ronald Holmes cited “self-censorship” among some media practitioners, a practice also observed under previous presidents but “without the same threat that this administration has engaged in.”
Secretary Salvador Panelo earlier said the SWS press freedom survey meant that the country has “a vibrant and robust exercise of those freedoms.”
The results, he said, were “a repudiation of the vociferous and unrelenting tirade of the critics and detractors of the president... that the freedoms of speech and of expression are being curtailed by the administration.”
The same survey showed that half of the respondents also felt it was “dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.”
“We are the freest free press in the world,” Panelo told ABS-CBN News, citing the SWS results.
Undersecretary Joel Sy Egco said critics should distinguish between what the President says and actually does about the press.
Duterte’s very first administrative order created a task force to secure media workers, said Egco, a former newspaper reporter who now heads this group.
The president also issued a freedom of information order covering the executive branch, as legislators continued to wrangle over whether to institutionalize such access in a law.
“These are landmark measures,” said Egco, who heads the Duterte task force. “Iba naman yung sinasabi nya sa ginagawa nya.”
(What he does is different from what he says.)
But critics contend that what the President has done to news organizations critical of his administration, including opposition figures, cannot be ignored as well.
Sen. Leila de Lima has been detained for more than 2 years on what her supporters say are trumped-up drug charges in response to her criticism of Duterte’s brutal drug war.
Rappler boss Maria Ressa is also facing several cases, including her news organization’s supposed violation of the constitutional ban on foreign ownership in mass media.
“Look what happened to (them),” said lawyer Michael Henry Yusingco, a senior fellow at Ateneo’s School of Government.
“Those are two high-profile personalities that have received the ire of this administration precisely because they said something publicly that was very negative about the administration.”
TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY
So, is the Philippines less liberal now under Duterte?
It’s important to remember that whoever sits in Malacañang, said Holmes, wields immense powers relative to other institutions under the country’s presidential form of government.
“It’s not something new... it’s not exclusive to Duterte. It’s something we’ve seen from Quezon’s time,” he told ABS-CBN News.
“Some presidents are better at it. Other presidents are less capable.”
The administration of Benigno Aquino III was also criticized for driving congressional allies to impeach then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, eventually forcing her to resign before a Senate trial could commence.
Senators also toed the line when Aquino sought the removal of then Chief Justice Renato Corona through an impeachment trial.
“The tyranny of the majority is a tyranny that has ruled for quite some time regardless of what administration,” Holmes said.
WEAK PARTY SYSTEM
A big part of the problem has to do with the Philippines’ weak political party system that allows politicians to shift allegiance easily depending on the sitting president, he said.
Duterte’s moribund PDP-Laban predictably became the dominant party soon after he won in 2016, attracting members of what was once the ruling Liberal Party.
The same thing happened to LP when Aquino assumed in 2010.
Since 1987, 33.5 percent of House members switched parties, according to a study by political science professor Julio Teehankee.
Of this number, 60.2 percent joined the party of the sitting president, the study showed.
As a consequence, Holmes said: “The dominant party suddenly loses its power (and) the opposition is decimated, not by the president, but by the very system that force many of these politicians to transfer.”