[OPINION] Marcos and Duterte: Strongmen’s changing playbook

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
[OPINION] Marcos and Duterte: Strongmen’s changing playbook
Threats to a free press have returned in different forms. There is no other way ahead but to stay the course.



At no other time since the light of democracy shone on our shores more than 30 years ago have we experienced unrelenting threats to our freedoms. Today, more than ever, journalists like myself find renewed meaning in World Press Freedom Day, an annual commemoration of this profession – more like calling – not only in the Philippines but in countries similarly situated, ruled by strongmen and leaders with vehement anti-democratic tendencies. 

May 3, 2018 marks the 25th year of World Press Freedom Day, with a theme so apt: Keeping power in check: media, justice and rule of law.

At this time, it is useful to reflect on how it was to be a journalist when there was a drought of democracy during the martial law years under Ferdinand Marcos and how it is today under the autocracy of Rodrigo Duterte. These eras share basic similarities but the conditions that enveloped them have changed.

I started out as a reporter during the dying years of Martial Law in the early 1980s. Then, we lived in a world that was black and white. The enemy of the media was clear: it was Martial Law. It was the authoritarian rule of Marcos. It was the state.

The single biggest threat to press freedom was the dictatorship. State censorship reigned. The rules were set in stone: no one was to write critically of the president, the first lady Imelda Marcos, and the military.

Media organizations were shut down: TV, radio, and print. Propaganda sheets took over, a monotone of government-friendly news and commentary. Opposition leaders, activists, including journalists, were jailed.

The lines were drawn between the enemy and the journalists.

1983: watershed year 

When Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was assassinated in 1983, a storm of protests washed over the country. The silence and docility of many years gave way to a flood of tears and anger.

That was when the international community began to pay attention to the Philippines. The US, which was backing Marcos, started to distance itself from its ally.

This gave the media some space: the alternative press or mosquito press – noisy, buzzing in many people’s ears – was born. These newspapers covered the opposition extensively, reported on stories that were critical of the Marcos regime.

Xerox journalism – photocopied stories in the foreign press about the Philippines – thrived.

Duterte playbook 

Today, underneath the trappings of a democracy such as free elections, an ostensibly free media, and the absence of martial rule (except in Mindanao), the media are under siege. The threats to a free press have returned, in different forms, with a vengeance.

This is the first time, since Marcos was deposed in 1986, that we are losing our grip on democracy, courtesy of an autocratic president who is using state agencies to weaken the media.

Here’s how his playbook works. He threatens the news media on two fronts through vile public statements: the owners and the reporters. Then he lets loose government agencies like the Bureau of Internal Revenue on media organizations he hates. Add to this the use of state resources for disinformation to spread untruths about news outfits and undermine their credibility. 

Duterte was still president-elect when we saw a foreboding of what was to come.

The case of the Davao reporter who asked a straightforward question to Duterte about his health – and a copy of his medical certificate – stands out. In a victory rally, the president-in-waiting poured his ire on the reporter saying he should have asked him the condition of his wife’s vagina.

His most recent attack on the press was the banning of a reporter, Pia Ranada of Rappler, from covering him not only in Malacañang but in all events he graces in any part of the country, whether organized by the private sector or government. This was expanded to include other provincial correspondents who had ties to Rappler.


Not far behind are government offices that either do the President’s bidding or scramble to please him. The Bureau of Internal Revenue has filed tax evasion cases against the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Prieto family, and Rappler.

The government has charged the Philippine franchisee of Dunkin Donuts, owned by the Prietos, for not paying over a billion pesos in taxes in 2007. In the case of Rappler, the BIR says that it hasn’t paid P133 million in taxes, a claim that has been disputed by the company.

What was more menacing was the order of the Securities and Exchange Commission to shut down Rappler. This came after prodding from the Office of the Solicitor General.

The hand of the justice department, then under former secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, was apparent in the filing of a cyber libel case against Rappler for a story written in 2012, months before the cyber libel bill became law. 

As for ABS-CBN, Duterte has vowed to block the renewal of its franchise in Congress which expires in 2020, two years before he steps down. 

Philippines is not alone

The wave of attacks on the media is happening elsewhere. Look at our neighbors Cambodia and Myanmar, and farther away, Turkey, Russia, and the US.

In 2017, The Cambodia Daily was shut down by Prime Minister Hun Sen after it was charged with evading taxes reaching $6.3 million and given a short deadline to pay it. The Cambodia Daily was critical of Hun Sen.

In Myanmar, two reporters of Reuters were detained last year after they investigated the killing of Rohingya Muslims. 

Turkey’s tax ministry imposed a $2.5-billion fine for alleged tax evason on a media conglomerate whose reports were critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The owner of this conglomerate was forced to sell to loyalists of Erdogan. (Does this sound familiar? The Inquirer is currently negotiating to sell to Ramon Ang, an ally of Duterte.)

In Russia, the same thing happened. President Vladimir Putin unleashed the tax authorities on the owner of an independent TV network. The owner sold his media network to a government-owned company.

In the US, Donald Trump has trained his sights on Amazon, owned by Jeff Bezos, for tax evasion. Bezos owns The Washington Post which has been unrelenting in its reporting on Trump.

It is a different world, a scary one. Time to dig deep into our reservoir of courage. There is no other way ahead but to stay the course. – Rappler.com


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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.