Column: If not Duterte’s ouster, what?

Like many, I do not want the military to oust President Duterte; that attempt at a cure (to speak figuratively) may prove to be worse than the disease. Like many, I only want our democratic processes to function, our checks and balances to work, our politicians to grow a spine worthy of the dignity of their office—so that everyone, Duterte included, can be held accountable not only by history but in real time. The lesson from the history of democratic polities is clear: The consent of the governed depends on limits placed on government. Published on April 25, 2017.

I have written in this space before: There is no conspiracy to oust President Duterte, and there are no destabilization attempts against his administration. What is the “point,” then, of all the criticism? To ask the question is to misunderstand the role of a free press, an unco-opted opposition and the democratic project itself. In our different ways, we criticize to hold him accountable.

Let me limit myself to the responsibility of journalists.

It is possible that this misunderstanding is based on genuine anxiety: The Duterte administration’s internal contradictions have emerged, blinking, into the light of day, and the infighting between Cabinet secretaries, the policy differences involving agency heads or key bureaucrats, the outright calls for resignation exchanged by leaders of the ruling political alliance—these would spook any administration, especially an administration that hasn’t even marked a full year in office. The convenient excuse is to blame an imagined ouster plot, but we do not need to exercise what the harassed presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella once called “creative imagination” to understand events. It is a fact that Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez has appeared before the Commission on Appointments to argue against the confirmation of the appointment of Environment Secretary Gina Lopez; it is a fact that Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of the Department of Transportation under Secretary Arthur Tugade. And so on.

Reporting the bad news is merely our duty; analyzing it is our responsibility.

It is also possible that this misunderstanding of any criticism of the Duterte presidency is based on the politics of paranoia. The filing of an impeachment case against the President is an extraordinary measure. The high-profile testimonies of confessed killers Edgar Matobato and then, more damningly, Arturo Lascañas, appear to be part of a plan to implicate the President in the lethal record of the Davao Death Squad. The attempt to hale the President and his men before the International Criminal Court is a first. But, in all candor, these are options legally or politically available to those who oppose Mr. Duterte. Impeachment does not look like it will get the numbers, the Senate has closed the door on the DDS testimonies, the ICC filing looks premature. A Duterte supporter can criticize these attempts as opposition campaigns, but the free press does not become part of the opposition when it reports on these campaigns, or tries to make sense of them. (It is a matter of duty; the same free press dutifully reported on Mayor Duterte’s accusations against the Aquino administration, when he was running for president.)

When we criticize the President (and in “Why we must criticize Duterte,” I list at least three potential “casualties” of his presidency), it is not to help create the conditions for his ouster; rather, it is to exercise our constitutionally guaranteed right to hold him to account. That is all.

I certainly do not want the military to take matters into its own hands; that would be a mistake. That would be a mistake even though (or because) our current military leadership is a study in dedication and professionalism. It took us many years to bring the soldiers “back to the barracks,” after the institutionalized corruption of the Marcos regime (when colonels ran steel mills and generals lived in newly created gated communities) and the chaos of the coup attempts in the years that followed. It would be a terrible idea, a tragic tempting of the fates, to invite the military to save the day again.

But I do hope that critical reporting and commentary will be read or viewed by the soldiers and their officers—as well as law-abiding policemen, civil servants, businessmen, priests, diplomats, students—to reinforce the message that the consent of the governed depends on limits being placed on the government.

Fully aware of our own shortcomings, we journalists exercise our duty to criticize in order to hold this administration accountable, and to minimize the damage that may yet still be done.

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

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