The 100-day word war: How Duterte handles criticism

Pia Ranada
The 100-day word war: How Duterte handles criticism
His first hundred days in power show a pattern in his angry responses. Do they also provide a clue on how best to handle the hot-headed President?

MANILA, Philippines – One of the constants in President Rodrigo Duterte’s first 100 days in power was the word wars he waged against various groups, sectors, and world leaders.

The public has had to listen, almost daily, to hour-long speeches in which Duterte, without fail, unleashed diatribe after diatribe against the latest subject of his anger. 

During the first days of his presidency, his vitriol was aimed at human rights groups, the Church, and media. Eventually, his anger for Senator Leila De Lima surged as she pursued Senate investigations into his involvement in extrajudicial killings. 

Nearing his 100th day in power, his anger has expanded beyond the country’s borders, to condemn United States President Barack Obama, United Nations officials, and European Union lawmakers.

But what exactly gets Duterte angry? What type of criticism makes the Philippine President lash out with curses?

On the other side of the spectrum, what makes Duterte reconsider his words and even apologize? What moves him to change his mind and behavior?

Pattern in Duterte’s anger

From his speeches so far, there is much one can learn about how Duterte processes criticism and then responds to it.

One can even discern a pattern that might be instructive later on to anyone who wants to confront him.

Obama/US Concern on extrajudicial killings linked to drug war Calls US hypocritical, brings up US shootings of black men, Bud Dajo massacre Demands apology from Obama
Ban Ki-moon/UN officials Concern on extrajudicial killings linked to drug war Calls UN hypocritical, brings up genocides in other countries Challenges UN rapporteur to a debate, invites UN team to investigate drug war
European Parliament Concern on extrajudicial killings linked to drug war Calls EU hypocritical, brings up ‘abandoned’ African migrants fleeing to Europe Challenges EU to investigate drug war
Unnamed Ambassador Reminds Duterte of PH commitments to reduce carbon emissions Calls Western, industrialized countries hypocritical for imposing restrictions on PH economic growth Threatens not to abide by Paris Agreement on climate change
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno Says, in a letter, that Duterte’s announcement of judges supposedly with drug links is ‘premature’ Blasts Supreme Court for ‘ordering’ him around, suggesting a more difficult way of proceeding with his drug war Threatens not to follow SC, threatens martial law
Senator Leila De Lima Asserts Duterte behind EJKS, begins Senate investigation Calls De Lima a hypocrite, brings up drug operations in Bilibid prison that thrived when she was justice secretary Threatens to ‘destroy’ her, mentions ‘sex video’ with driver, reveals drug matrix supposedly showing her involvemenent in drug trade
Media Claims Duterte endorses media killings, questions his wolf-whistling at women Claims some journalists are corrupt, blasts media for spinnings his statements Boycotts private media, does not hold press conferences for almost two months


First, Duterte is extra-sensitive to criticism from the West. This likely stems from his enduring anti-colonialist sentiment which he never hid as Davao City mayor. He had refused to allow US troops from entering his city.

Since the 2016 campaign, he frequently mentions how European Ferdinand Magellan came to the Philippines in 1521 to begin the subjugation of Filipinos under colonial powers.

Duterte’s vehement anti-imperialism magnifies, in his view, any criticism coming from any Western power – be it US or EU. To him, it’s a wealthy nation bullying its “little brown brothers,” and Duterte is desperate not to be bullied. 

One classic example is his reaction to a European ambassador reminding him of the Philippines’ commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Duterte felt insulted seeing this as another imposition of the richer West on an impoverished Philippines.

We all know what happened after. He publicy said he wanted to “kick” the ambassador before declaring he would not honor the Paris climate change agreement. Eventually, he reconsidered and said he is willing to “talk” about the climate deal.

Second, Duterte is quick to identify the “hypocrisies” in his critics: the US is a hypocrite for demanding respect for human rights when its police force shoots black men for no reason; the EU is also a hypocrite for demanding an investigation into extrajudicial killings when it abandons thousands of African migrants; the UN is a hypocrite for criticizing his drug war when they were unable to stop genocides in other parts of the world.

He then uses these “hypocrisies” to argue that his critics have no moral high-ground to lecture him, and thus he is justified in name-calling, cursing, and making outrageous threats.

Third, Duterte hates trial by publicity inflicted on his own person. He’ll subject police generals, senators, and governors to such a trial by announcing their supposed links to the drug trade, but he’ll bristle at any such attempt on him. 

Duterte is big on respect for the “proper channels,” as his Spokesman Ernesto Abella put it in several press conferences.

His primary argument against UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the other UN rapporteurs is how they relied on “media reports” to claim extrajudicial killings were sanctioned by his administration and then issued public statements before bringing their concern directly to his attention. 

In Duterte’s mind, issuing public statements against him is a form of “granstanding” at his expense, said a Cabinet secretary who has known Duterte for many years.

Thus, the public statements of UN rapporteurs and the European Parliament are, to him, in the same league as De Lima’s public condemnations of his supposed involvement in unlawful killings. 

All this has led Duterte to consider himself treated unfairly. It’s injustice to his person that seriously gets his goat.

Patmei Ruivivar, a former chief of staff of Duterte’s when he was still mayor, previously told Rappler that, in those days, Duterte would get “hurt” by newspaper headlines that he thought depicted him unfairly. In response, he would lash out angrily. 

The fourth aspect of Duterte’s angry responses is the issuance of a challenge. 

You know he’s had enough of criticism when he challenges his critic. This is what happened to Obama, with Duterte’s demand for an apology for the 1906 Bud Dajo massacre by American soldiers, and the UN, with his challenge that they come to the Philippines to investigate the drug killings.

During the transition period before his presidency, outraged by the constant inquiries about his health, Duterte challenged a reporter to accompany him to his house and watch him run on his treadmill for an hour and 30 minutes. If Duterte could do it, the reporter should quit his job, he proposed.

The challenges Duterte cooks up for his critics, more often than not, are meant to prove his point or put his critics in an awkward position.

Yet is there a method to this madness? Political analyst Aries Arugay thinks this could be the case for Duterte’s barrage of insults at the US and Obama.

“I think what the President is doing is testing the US – to what extent they can endure this unorthodox statements coming from a Philippine president,” said Arugay.

Duterte may be doing this to test the strength of US and Philippines ties, said Arugay.

“He is fond of testing, naninimpla siya eh (he is sizing you up). He’s really testing the US, to what extent it’s willing to stay and be an ally of the Philippines,” he said.

Despite Duterte’s insults, the US is not biting. US State Department officials continue to emphasize their commitment to the Philippines.

Duterte’s apologies

But perhaps more interesting than what gets him angry is what makes him feel guilty and even apologetic. Definitely, these moments are few and far between.

Duterte made a personal appearance at a synagogue in Makati to apologize to Jews for his Hitler remarks. Members of the Jewish community applauded him afterward and even gave him a standing ovation. Jews interviewed afterward said they found his apology “sincere” and “heartfelt.”

Duterte also apologized to Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for his “harsh words” when responding to her letter about his controversial list of drug personalities. 

Another incident in which Duterte changed his mind about his critics was when he ended his 2-month boycott of private media. Previously, he had stated he would never hold a press conference until the end of his term. 

Like his invectives, there is a pattern to his milder responses. 

Duterte tends to respond more positively if the criticism is coursed to him directly and in a personal manner, rather than through public statements.

Duterte’s visit to the synagogue was arranged by Israeli Ambassador to the Philippines Effie Ben Matityau who had spoken with the President’s camp.

In the case of his spat with private media, the end of his boycott came after Duterte hosted a private dinner with a small group of journalists whom he has known since his mayorship or since his presidential campaign. Some of these reporters appealed to him to end his media boycott.

It was after only a few personal encounters with Vice President Leni Robredo that Duterte announced he would give her a Cabinet position. Before then, he was cool to the idea, still hurting from his electoral loss in Robredo’s bailiwick, Bicol.

Dignified silences also seem to work on Duterte, as in the case of Chief Justice Sereno who chose not to comment on the President’s tirade against her. Later on, it was Duterte who said sorry.

The same thing happened with the Church or local church leaders. After the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) blasted Duterte for cursing Pope Francis, Duterte called them hypocritical for their corruption and sexual scandals. He even said he was himself molested by a Jesuit priest.

RECONCILIATION? President Rodrigo Duterte places his forehead on Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle's hand to show respect during a meeting at the Study Room of the Malacañang Palace on Tuesday July 19, 2016. Photo by KIWI BULACLAC/PND

Since the Pope Francis comment, the CBCP has not issued any statement on Duterte himself. (READ: Bishop amidst Duterte tirades: ‘There is virtue in silence’)

Soon, Duterte could be seen kissing the hands of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle and Cebu Archbishop Emeritus Ricardo Cardinal Vidal.

Personal approach

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, a friend of Duterte’s since college, said, “I think the President appreciates more the personal approach because that’s how he also relates with people.”

As a Cabinet secretary and close friend of Duterte’s said, “If you come across gently, he is also gentle. If you come in rough, he’ll be rougher.”

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, when making a suggestion to Duterte, said he would usually run it by Special Assistant to the President Bong Go, who, he said, “thinks like the President.” 

He would then bring up his suggestion by first asking what Duterte’s opinion is on the idea, beginning his sentence with a “Don’t you think…?” 

Bello, who has known Duterte much longer, prefers a more straightforward but still personal, one-on-one approach.

“I just go directly to him and I tell him Mr President, ganito (it’s like this),” said Bello.

What’s clear from Duterte’s patterns of behavior is that no matter how tough he may want to look, Duterte is sensitive to criticism, perhaps even more sensitive than most because of pre-conceived notions about Western powers.

His first 100 days have given the Philippines and the world a glimpse into the rest of his presidency – one that, no doubt, will continue to be at the receiving end of many more criticism. 

Is Duterte’s anger a daily reality that we will continue waking up to or will Duterte learn to accept criticism and better moderate himself?

Will the critics take a different tack when expressing their disapproval of Duterte? In a presidency that has begun with so much tension, one wonders who, if any, will give in. –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at