Focus: PHILIPPINES – Fact-checkers can’t keep up with Philippines’ Duterte
The most difficult challenge for journalists covering Rodrigo Duterte is making sure they do not let themselves be used to peddle fake information.
Story by Ellen T. Tordesillas | Illustration by Shutterstock.com | Edited by Jay Hartwell
President Duterte is often loose with facts.
A month ago, for example, he justified his plan to cancel barangay (village) elections and instead personally appoint village leaders by saying 40 percent of the more than 42,000 barangay captains are involved in the drug trade — as either addicts, producers or both.
He did not cite any study to back up the alarming number. His spokesperson was no help, and said the president is privy to confidential information.
A barangay is the smallest unit of government in the Philippines, ranging in size from 2,000 people in the provinces to 247,000 in Caloocan City in metropolitan Manila. It’s a crucial component of Philippine society because barangay captains, elected by the people every three years, are the ones in touch with the masses.
Duterte’s plan to appoint them, doing away with elections, would be a violation of the Constitution and would undermine democracy. It is seen as another step toward authoritarianism.
Fact-checkers cannot keep pace, given the frequency with which Duterte spews unsubstantiated information and oftentimes outright falsehoods.
Given that propagandists believe that a lie becomes truth if repeated enough, a journalist, by repeatedly reporting and quoting Duterte’s false claims, inadvertently becomes a peddler of fake information.
Duterte is not an easy public figure to cover. We are not talking about his cursing or his penchant for talking for hours or holding midnight press conferences that last until the wee hours of the morning. What is troubling is the culture of impunity he is perpetuating by his words and actions.
His war on drugs is premised on dubious, unsubstantiated data. His “Kill, Kill” solution to the drug problem shows disdain for due process. His public support for police who have killed without due process creates an attitude in which they flout the law and get away with it.
Last month, Duterte lambasted ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s top two media outfits, for continuing to report about his bank accounts containing billions of pesos which he never explained and for “slanting” stories on drug-related, extra-judicial killing.
His Communications Secretary, Martin Andanar, also accused Senate beat reporters of taking bribes to cover the press conference of former policeman Arturo Lascañas, who accused Duterte of being behind the Davao Death Squad.
To be sure, Duterte is not the only Philippine leader who has complained about local media, which are considered among the freest in Asia.
Former President Benigno Aquino III often complained of reporters not writing about his government’s accomplishments. Former President Gloria Arroyo, through her husband Mike Arroyo, filed libel suits against more than 40 journalists who wrote stories critical of them. Former President Joseph Estrada sued The Manila Times for libel and initiated an advertising boycott against the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
But Duterte is the only president to have been accused of directly ordering the killing of a journalist — Jun Pala, a vocal critic when Duterte was Davao City mayor
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and other media organizations slammed Duterte for justifying the killing of journalists who, he said, are “sons-of-bitches” as he had called Pala.
He once dared journalists: “Kill journalism. Stop journalism in this country, if you’re worth your salt. If not, you look pathetic and scared.”
A journalist’s job is to hold accountable those who are in power through truthful, responsible reporting. That becomes more urgent, but more difficult, with President Duterte.
Ellen T. Tordesillas is a writer and trustee of VERA Files, a group that produces in-depth reports on current affairs in the Philippines and currently implements the country’s only sustained fact-checking project. She also writes a column for the broadsheet Malaya Malaya Business Insight, the tabloid Abante and ABS-CBN online. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.