Covering the PDP-Laban, Duterte campaign despite the Rappler ban

Camille Elemia
Covering the PDP-Laban, Duterte campaign despite the Rappler ban
'I had to be invisible to be present'

This year was my third time to cover a national campaign. But unlike in the past two elections, covering the 2019 senatorial polls came with a huge disadvantage. I covered the campaign of ruling party PDP-Laban despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s ban imposed on Rappler reporters. (READ: One year banned from President Duterte’s events)

Both the Presidential Security Group and the Media Accreditation and Relations Office (MARO) were under strict instructions to make sure that no Rappler reporter would be allowed into any of the President’s events, including campaign sorties where the President was a guest speaker. (READ: Duterte, PDP-Laban campaign rallies: Showbiz, insults, late night rants)

In fact, even when I was a personal guest in August 2018 at an event of PDP-Laban Cares, the humanitarian arm of the party, MARO Jen Guilaran went up to me as I was seated with other guests who included local politicians, raised her voice, and told me that I needed to leave the venue. 

Fast forward to 2019: I knew the 90 days of campaign would be a tough time. And it did not disappoint. 

Merely entering PDP-Laban and Duterte rallies is like mounting a production and secret operation of sorts at the same time. I could not be myself. I must be unrecognizable. It was a challenge because I worked with some of the MARO staff when I covered then-president Benigno Aquino III. I had to be invisible to be present. 

When the schedule said rallies would start at 2 pm, it meant I had to be there two to 4 hours earlier. I had to line up at the public’s entrance. I had to be there early because I didn’t know what would happen to me in every single rally. 

Here I was – a legitimate member of the media covering PDP-Laban and the Senate, working for a legitimate media organization, covering a public event in a supposedly free society – hiding just to do my job.

It was surreal and challenging, and definitely very exhausting.

On some days, I was luckier. During PDP-Laban’s campaign launch in Bulacan, my team and I were able to get into the venue and bring our camera inside. Later that night, we joined the media ambush interview with Duterte – the first one Rappler covered since the ban. (WATCH: Duterte endorses ‘personal’ senatorial slate)

Watch the ambush interview of Duterte:

In a rally in Biñan, Laguna, our cameraman tried to enter through the media entrance but as expected, the MARO staff stopped him. We had to resort to filming the live videos played on the LED screens outside. 

LAGUNA. In a rally in Biñan, I was seated near the stage, Malacañang officers, and President Duterte. Photo by Camille Elemia/Rappler

Until the very end, attending PDP-Laban rallies induced a lot of anxiety. During the miting de avance in Pasig, I did not know if I would be able to enter the venue and cover the event. Thankfully, I found a random administration supporter, who agreed to give me his ticket.

But even then, we could not completely perform our job as journalists. I, as well as other Rappler correspondents who made it in the provincial rallies, could not tweet or post updates. We just wanted to work but we were restrained from doing so.

Not everything is about the President, especially this time when the public has to know the candidates courting their votes. Even if I was inside the venue, I could not join ambush interviews of candidates and could not ask questions. I was practically left with what they said onstage, which is of course their agenda. And frankly, these were more important than what Duterte would say.

The rallies were not about platform and politics, they were about pomp and entertainment, dancers gyrating to pop music in between song-and-dance numbers of celebrities and candidates themselves. Everyone played to the audience, including the President whose every insult and profanity was met with cheers, laughter, and applause. (READ: Till the very end, song and dance numbers fill PDP-Laban campaign)

I was prevented from entering this circus? What was the big deal? It was not like I would discover some groundbreaking governance policy that the administration was afraid the opposition and other independent candidates would learn about. But yes, it was important that people would know what went on in these rallies. And that’s what I was there for. That’s what our team strove to accomplish, rally after rally. 

If there was a positive outcome of all this, it was me observing closely how the attendees reacted to the candidates and to the President. I saw how excited they were to see the candidates and the President at the start, only to end up weary and eager for Duterte to finish his winding speeches. I saw how many of them believed in Duterte and his candidates and how some expressed reservations about his policies, especially the bloody drug war.

SUPPORTER. A Duterte supporter attends the Malabon rally in a wheelchair. Photo by Camille Elemia/Rappler

During the early part of the campaign, I felt violated because I was not just a journalist from Rappler, I was also a Filipino voter who had every right to be there. Bobby Lagsa, our Cagayan de Oro correspondent, who was evicted by the PSG from a taxpayer-funded state university, had every right to be in that rally. But this administration is robbing us of that right. (READ: Malacañang orders Rappler correspondent kicked out of PDP-Laban’s CDO rally)

This is why each time I would question whether I was doing the right thing or not, I’d end up thinking that if I, or we, just let this pass, we would be allowing them to get away with violating our rights. They want us to feel like criminals when we are not – and they won’t succeed. (READ: Rappler asks Supreme Court to end Duterte coverage ban)

This apparent campaign coverage ban is not and should not just be about the President. It is ultimately about respect for the electoral process and the constitutional right of a free press. And we at Rappler will do our job of running after the truth, day in and day out, no matter what it takes. –

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Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a former multimedia reporter for Rappler. She covered media and disinformation, the Senate, the Office of the President, and politics.