Column: Cayetano on Duterte and the media

 

Published on June 7, 2016.

I have had occasion to criticize Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano directly in this space, but I believe he does not take it against me. He is a rare breed of politician in that sense; he seeks to engage even his (occasional) critics, confident in his ability to make his case. When I had the chance to interview him during the campaign period, the vice presidential candidate was his usual articulate self—he mentioned the fact that I had criticized him before, but only in passing, and only as an example of the difference in our responsibilities: his as a politician, mine as a journalist.

His views on President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s criticism of media practices, and in particular of those of national media organizations based in Manila, hold a special fascination for me then. Over the weekend, I heard him express these views thrice: at the “VIP lane” leading to the massive victory rally dubbed “One Love, One Nation” in Crocodile Park in Davao City on Saturday, on stage at that rally, and in an exclusive interview with Inquirer.net (also carried live on Facebook) the following day.

I found his VIP lane version to be the most developed and on point, and I would like to engage with his views as he expressed them then, in a chance interview (the far better term for ambush interview, which came into use during the first Aquino administration) by national and local media.

He noted that the call for a boycott of Duterte’s rambling, provocative news conferences was aired by an international organization, and that the Philippine media did not heed that call. (I will render his remarks, which was a mix of languages, into straight English.)

“Misunderstanding, miscommunication. Because the international media that asked for the boycott did not understand, because they read only portions of the news. They did not see the whole context [yung buong konteksto] and what kind of public official our President is. The international media is not used to not getting sound bites. They are not used to being in a real dialogue.”

It is true that it was Paris-based Reporters Without Borders that suggested a boycott, and that the organization may have misread the situation. But the context is clear: Many Filipino journalists saw Duterte’s first and extended statement on journalist killings as an encouragement of more such murders; as a result, some foreign journalists acted in solidarity with their colleagues in the Philippines. It is important to emphasize that I know of no Philippine media organization which even considered the possibility of a boycott: It would have been an abdication of duty.

Cayetano went on to describe Duterte’s manner of engaging with journalists. “Who is the leader who for three hours, four hours, until early morning, talks to the media?” That is true, in part because he starts his day so late. But while I continue to hold the hope that as President the man who still prefers to be called mayor (or CM, for city mayor) can conduct “a real dialogue” with the media, in much the same way he engaged editors and reporters of the Inquirer last August, the news conferences since then may be more accurately called monologues.

“He said yesterday you will kill journalism. He was not saying killing journalists or boycotting. He was saying that when you do not cover a person because you don’t like the way he talks, you will kill journalism.”

Point taken. But there was never any question of not covering the President-elect because of the way he talks; it was, and remains, a question of reporting what he said AND how he said it. Today, media organizations get a lot of flak on social media for allegedly twisting Duterte’s words, or spinning them, but in fact—and this is something that can be easily checked—controversies from Duterte’s media interviews (or his speeches during the campaign and his interventions at the debates) do not arise from his words, which are reported faithfully, sometimes in all their gruesomeness, but from the consequences of his words.

“So you know when the mayor speaks about corruption, bias, mouthpieces, he is not [only] talking about reporters. He is talking also about the owners of newspapers. He is talking about a worldwide threat where the media is commercialized.”

Again, point well and truly taken. Media organizations are profoundly aware that corruption continues to bedevil the industry; we have not yet fully recovered from the strategic coopting of the media during the Marcos era. At the same time, we are also keenly aware that the media landscape is shifting rapidly; credibility, the currency we value the most, is now defined in different ways, as authority, or authenticity, or availability, and so on. But none of these old and new problems justify the extrajudicial killing of any journalist. (Or, while we’re at it, at the sexist treatment of women reporters.)

Not least, Cayetano also said this: “In my view, he is doing this deliberately before he takes his oath as president. So it won’t be said that the powers of the presidency [are] being used against any network. He is not taking any of this personally. Not against a specific outlet, a specific medium … . He’s talking about the general problem, and he’s admitted that he’s part of the system.”

Perhaps a real dialogue can include both general problem and admission.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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