MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – A year after his self-imposed ban, former president Benigno Aquino III broke his silence, as he cited the Philippine media’s “deafening silence” under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The former chief executive raised this in response to questions in an exclusive interview with Rappler's Maria Ressa, where he observed that the media nitpicked his administration and seemed even more courageous when they were most vulnerable – during the Marcos regime – compared to now.
Aquino recalled how the media was so critical of his government that even the “flimsiest” issue would not go unnoticed. Now, he said, the media seemed “a little quiet” about the administration marred with human rights violations and extrajudicial killings.
“Just this weekend, I talked to various friends, associates, colleagues, etc. And the persistent thing was, one, we failed to communicate what we had done. Second, why is it that media during our watch complained about the flimsiest and tiniest things and it seems to be a little quiet these days?” Aquino said in an exclusive interview with Rappler CEO and editor-in-chief Maria Ressa.
He did not recall particular stories but during his watch, news reports even cited the number of times his chronic coughing would disrupt a speech, prompting calls for him to give up smoking.
Asked whether he ever wanted to control media during his time, Aquino said, "Yes, in all honesty."
Instead of a clampdown on media, his administration instead repeatedly "appealed" for fairer media coverage but nothing happened, he said.
"But having said that, I think in all honesty, and I can lay my hand on any Bible, we never suppressed anybody’s rights. There were times we were so tempted, when things were so libelous, but you know I don’t think we ever filed any charges of libel on anybody," Aquino said.
Aquino said that even during martial law under the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, when journalists were arrested and languished in military camps, the media could not be stifled and continued to find ways to criticize bad government policies.
This tradition continued, he said, until his administration but things seemed to have changed under the new government.
“At the time, we were complaining, trying to put our position on the record, they kept saying: 'Press freedom. We’re the guardians, we’re this and that.' And we agree. But what I’m trying to say is when it didn’t cost you, you were so – how should I put it? – brave. When it could possibly cost you and it’s not even happening in the same token as it happened in 1972, suddenly the silence is kind of deafening,” Aquino said of the media under the Duterte administration.
In his criticism of the media, he said that even during the dark chapter of Martial Law, there were still newspapers that countered the government’s propaganda.
“Even at the height of martial law, you had Joe Burgos setting up Malaya. You had Betty Go for Mr and Ms. And it wasn’t confrontational….Even the people who just tried to mimeograph articles that were banned,” Aquino said.
“It’s not necessarily that we have to go back to look for a fight with anybody. I guess what I’m trying to say is, let’s try to find that avenue where we can dialogue and probably come up with the better, rather than be dogmatic and say mine is the best [and] yours is not,” he added.
Duterte has reaped criticism from journalists groups and human rights watchdogs for these attacks. (READ: NUJP calls our Duterte's 'absolutely twisted' ranks against media)
Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email email@example.com