Judgment Call

Making sense of the joker in Malacañang

Mia M. Gonzalez
Making sense of the joker in Malacañang

Hello, I’m Mia Gonzalez, a senior desk editor at Rappler who handles mostly political and security stories. Before I joined Rappler, I covered Malacañang and the Senate. More than presidential decisions and actions that shaped the nation, I looked forward to witnessing our leaders’ candid moments, like when Fidel V. Ramos suddenly walked to protesters just outside the venue of an event he was addressing and tried to talk to them, or that time Gloria Arroyo cracked a rare joke after being told that her photograph on the front page of a government-friendly newspaper inadvertently showed a glimpse of her underwear.

Erap Estrada and Noynoy Aquino liked to warm up crowds and media interviews with anecdotes and a few puns here and there, but the jokes stopped when national issues were discussed. All of them were aware that whatever they said would be taken as state policy. 

Palace coverage had always been almost template-like – the President made announcements, and reporters wrote about it – until Rodrigo Duterte occupied Malacañang. I never thought I would ever dread listening to someone so quotable.

In the months leading to and during the 2016 presidential campaign, Duterte seemed like a gold mine of stories. He was unfiltered, fearless, and earthy – traits not expected of someone aspiring to be president. His fans likened him to a breath of fresh air that musty Malacañang badly needed. 

Duterte’s unvarnished statements set him apart from the carefully constructed answers of his rivals in presidential debates. In one debate on April 24, 2016, a fisherman asked how the candidates planned to help people like him fish in peace in Philippine waters, without fear of being harassed by China’s coast guard. Duterte said that if the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines and China ignored it, he would jet ski to the Spratlys, plant the Philippine flag in Scarborough Shoal, then declare, “This is ours and do what you want with me.” He said he was ready to die a “hero” anyway. Team Duterte clapped and cheered.

His campaign team sent a press release to the media that documented this campaign promise verbatim, depicting him as the fearless candidate who would stand up to China – all part of his tough guy image that drew so many supporters like gamu-gamo to a bug zapper.

Rappler decided not to run that jet ski story because after having covered Mayor Duterte for some time then – beginning with his listening tours over a year before the 2016 elections – we saw that he had a tendency to exaggerate. We didn’t want to muddle the conversation. Besides, that statement was a rehash of a previous pronouncement. A Rappler briefer on then-presidential candidate Duterte published in December 2015 included a more provocative quote on his position on China’s claim in the West Philippine Sea, though it conveyed the same message: “If you can’t stop fucking with us, you’ll see me standing on Spratlys and you’ll just have to kill me.” 

We continued to exercise this kind of judgment when Duterte became president. In 2019, ahead of the senatorial and local elections, he released a list of alleged narcopoliticians, supposedly to “inform” voters on some of the candidates. We ran the story but we didn’t publish the names of those on the list. Duterte has been releasing drug lists since August 2016, which had errors – a dead person, a local government employee mistaken for a congressman, among others. Even the Philippine Drug enforcement Agency had said that they had no airtight cases against those on these lists. 

Media had a similar problem with Estrada, who based his responses to policy questions on instinct more than institutional knowledge. This was a president who granted ambush interviews whenever he saw the Palace press corps – more than once in a day – and we had to rely on his efficient and amiable spokesperson, the late Jerry Barican, to clarify or rectify what his boss just said, to fit the government’s official position.

Unfortunately, Duterte does not have someone like Jerry Barican in his communications team. 

During the pandemic, Duterte started giving his “Talk to the People on COVID-19” every Monday and Wednesday. These talks, of course, are not limited to the government’s pandemic response. This month, Duterte also used his airtime to laud China as the Philippines’ “benefactor” and attack critics of his West Philippine Sea policy. While he spoke in his usual meandering, expletive-laden style, it was easy to make a call to pursue this story. With just over a year left in his presidency, how much has he delivered on his West Philippine Sea campaign promise?

Rappler has been keeping a close watch on Duterte’s pronouncements on the West Philippine Sea issue, and the only significant action he ever made, so far, was to raise the Philippines’ 2016 victory against China in a speech at the 75th United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2020.

“We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for – the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition. This – as it should – is the majesty of the law,” Duterte said before world leaders then.

His critics welcomed his UN speech but wondered whether he would follow through with action. They got their answer during Duterte’s May 5 address, when he dismissed the Hague ruling as nothing more than a piece of paper destined for the garbage bin – an  impeachable offense, according to retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio. It makes you wonder whether Duterte had his fingers crossed when he delivered that UN speech. 

With hundreds of Chinese vessels, including ships from China’s navy and coast guard, still encroaching on Philippine waters and driving Filipino fishermen out despite the Philippines’ legal victory, Duterte maintained his defeatist attitude that the county is powerless against the military might of China. Carpio said this was proof that Duterte committed “grand estafa” by making a false campaign promise on the West Philippine Sea to Filipino voters. 

Duterte bristled when he was reminded of this campaign promise, and claimed that he never vowed to pressure China when he was just a candidate. He even challenged Carpio to a debate, which he later delegated to his spokesperson, Harry Roque. He also insisted that whoever believed his “campaign joke” is stupid

One of those who admittedly got duped was Carlo Montehermozo – the fisherman who had elicited the jet ski response from Duterte in that 2016 debate. DZMM tracked him down and asked him about Duterte’s remarks. “Joke-joke lang din naging presidente natin,” he said. There was no better way to put it.

With the pandemic far from over, and with more of Duterte’s unhinged public addresses to come, we will continue to scour his verbal muck for puzzle pieces on the kind of legacy he is leaving behind.

Mia M. Gonzalez

Mia M. Gonzalez is a senior desk editor of Rappler. She previously covered the Philippine presidency and politics. An award-winning literary writer, she is the author of Welostit and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.