The Philip­pines is slid­ing to­ward au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION - MIGUEL SYJUCO

In the grand scheme of the agenda of the Philip­pines’ Pres­i­dent – and other world lead­ers like him – the ar­rest of jour­nal­ist Maria Ressa makes per­fect, tragic sense,

Miguel Syjuco is a pro­fes­sor at NYU Abu Dhabi and writes ex­ten­sively on Philip­pine pol­i­tics. He the au­thor of the novel Ilustrado, which won the 2008 Man Asian Prize.

The Philip­pines is Asia’s old­est democ­racy, but for gen­er­a­tions, its demo­cratic mech­a­nisms have been hi­jacked by those seek­ing to im­pose their will. Un­der Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte, the coun­try is slid­ing to­wards the au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism it suf­fered dur­ing the long dic­ta­tor­ship of Fer­di­nand Mar­cos. But Mr. Duterte has learned from his­tory, and his meth­ods are very much of our cur­rent era – and his at­tacks on in­sti­tu­tional safe­guards, par­tic­u­larly press free­dom, ex­em­plify this.

On Nov. 28, a war­rant was is­sued against Maria Ressa, an ac­claimed re­porter who founded Rap­pler, the on­line news pub­li­ca­tion that has stead­fastly cov­ered the cor­rup­tion un­der Mr. Duterte’s ad­min­is­tra­tion as well as the thou­sands of mur­ders pub­licly en­cour­aged by the Pres­i­dent. Tapped by Face­book to spear­head the fight against fake news, Rap­pler is led by edi­tors who are among the most re­spected in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists in the Philip­pines – yet the six-year-old or­ga­ni­za­tion has been ac­cused of bias, il­le­gal for­eign own­er­ship and, most re­cently, tax eva­sion. Rap­pler’s op­er­at­ing li­cence has been re­voked, al­though it con­tin­ues to op­er­ate while it ap­peals the de­ci­sion. Its po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent was banned from the pres­i­den­tial palace ear­lier this year, and their other re­porters have had their ac­cess lim­ited.

Ms. Ressa re­turned to the Philip­pines and turned her­self in on Mon­day, af­ter a trip to the United States to re­ceive var­i­ous me­dia-free­dom awards. She is cur­rently free on bail. But this lat­est ef­fort by the Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion is part of a clear pat­tern to elim­i­nate or un­der­mine dis­sent.

In just 2½ years, Mr. Duterte and his al­lies have sys­tem­at­i­cally at­tacked any hin­drances to their rule along with mech­a­nisms for ac­count­abil­ity. An op­po­si­tion sen­a­tor was jailed on du­bi­ous charges while an­other has re­cently been or­dered ar­rested. The in­de­pen­dent-minded chief jus­tice of the Supreme Court was ousted on le­gal tech­ni­cal­i­ties, and re­placed with an ally of Mr. Duterte on a court now stacked in the Pres­i­dent’s favour. Sim­i­lar ef­forts to re­move the om­buds­man, who over­sees gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion and was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Pres­i­dent’s chil­dren, only ceased be­cause she re­tired. And Congress, which is ruled by Mr. Duterte’s co­horts, is mov­ing to re­write the Con­sti­tu­tion to con­cen­trate power in the prov­inces in which they rule and cur­tail re­straints on their au­thor­ity, such as term lim­its, ed­u­ca­tional re­quire­ments and re­stric­tions on dy­nas­ties. And the Pres­i­dent has kept a third of the coun­try un­der martial law, be­yond the time limit al­lowed by the con­sti­tu­tion – and he threat­ens to widen it to take ef­fect across the coun­try.

Hu­man rights have been cast by Mr. Duterte as detri­men­tal to gov­er­nance and pub­lic safety, with his al­lies in the leg­is­la­ture at one point al­lot­ting the Com- mis­sion on Hu­man Rights an an­nual bud­get of $25. Hu­man­rights ad­vo­cates and jour­nal­ists alike have been de­clared by the Pres­i­dent as fair game for vi­o­lence, and sev­eral have been de­ported, in­clud­ing a sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian Aus­tralian nun who had worked among the poor­est Filipinos for 27 years. Mr. Duterte has piv­oted the Philip­pines to­wards al­le­giances with au­thor­i­tar­ian coun­tries, such as Rus­sia and China, who do not make fi­nan­cial and mil­i­tary aid con­tin­gent on ad­her­ence to hu­man rights. And when the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court moved to in­ves­ti­gate Mr. Duterte and mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion for the state-in­duced vi­o­lence that has claimed at least 4,000 lives, the Pres­i­dent de­cided to uni­lat­er­ally pull the Philip­pines out of in­ter­na­tional treaties to which it has been long been a sig­na­tory.

Per­haps the only po­lit­i­cal threat to the strong­man legacy of the el­derly and ail­ing Mr. Duterte is Leni Ro­bredo, the Vice-Pres­i­dent. Her po­si­tion is elected sep­a­rately from the pres­i­dency and in this case, she comes from the op­po­si­tion party. She has been largely frozen out of all gov­er­nance and faces an elec­toral re­count that may see the Supreme Court rule in favour of her op­po­nent, a close ally of the Pres­i­dent – Fer­di­nand Mar­cos Jr., the son of the late dic­ta­tor.

Even or­di­nary cit­i­zens have been tar­geted for their dis­sent by Mr. Duterte’s pro­pa­gan­dists. The Pres­i­dent ad­mit­ted to em­ploy­ing hun­dreds of trolls dur­ing the elec­tion to in­flu­ence and over­whelm on­line dis­course, and his most loyal syco­phants have been well-re­warded with jobs in gov­ern­ment or with his al­lies. These so­cial-me­dia in­flu­encers have led at­tacks against dis­senters such as my­self, and we re­ceive floods of abuse and threats of rape and other vi­o­lence in an at- tempt to dis­credit us or drive us off­line.

Rap­pler’s fate may fol­low that of other news or­ga­ni­za­tions who’ve been forced to fold or toe the line. The owners of the Philip­pine Daily In­quirer, a top broad­sheet that main­tained a run­ning list of those killed un­der the regime, were threat­ened with pros­e­cu­tion be­fore they quickly sold the re­spected pa­per to an ally of the pres­i­dent. A lead­ing na­tional TV sta­tion, ABS-CBN, has been threat­ened with clo­sure. Heroic ef­forts such as Rap­pler’s – safe­guard­ing me­dia in­de­pen­dence and force trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity on the gov­ern­ment – are sim­ply not wel­come in Mr. Duterte’s Philip­pines.

It is within this pat­tern of weaponized pro­pa­ganda, le­gal rub­ber-stamp­ing and ar­bi­trary reg­u­la­tion that we can un­der­stand the war­rant against Ms. Ressa. The Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion has long been try­ing to im­pose a fa­cade of le­git­i­macy by ma­nip­u­lat­ing both pub­lic opin­ion and the courts to es­tab­lish some sort of ju­di­cial truth. But ju­di­cial truth is not nec­es­sar­ily the truth, as Rap­pler has doggedly been prov­ing.

The Duterte gov­ern­ment claims it is sim­ply en­forc­ing the law, yet the law has not been ad­min­is­tered equally; un­der this regime, even high-pro­file tax evaders have re­ceived only fines. And the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s muchtouted re­spect for free speech is ob­vi­ously disin­gen­u­ous, de­lib­er­ately mud­dling our right to speak freely with our abil­ity to speak out and hold the pow­er­ful to ac­count. Yes, by and large, Filipinos can still say what we want. But no, by and large, what we Filipinos say will never threaten the rule of the po­lit­i­cal elite – and when we do, we get shut up or shut down.

My coun­try has al­ways strug­gled with democ­racy. It has long been a dic­ta­tor­ship of dy­nas­ties, who trade power among them­selves, even as they quar­rel. Mr. Duterte, who adopts a false pop­ulist ev­ery­man im­age, is in fact the priv­i­leged son of a gover­nor and the fa­ther to chil­dren who now mo­nop­o­lize all lev­els of gov­er­nance in Davao City, the me­trop­o­lis that the pres­i­dent ruled for more than two decades as mayor and con­gress­man. His dy­nas­tic rule, like all dy­nas­tic rules, re­lies on po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age – it’s what he knows, it works for him, so he ex­tends that method to his pres­i­dency.

This is why Mr. Duterte al­lows loyal al­lies to ex­pand their control, and his un­elected ap­pointees to use their gifted po­si­tions to clam­ber to­wards of­fice in the next elec­tion, in May. This is why Rap­pler and other projects that seek to show the truth are as­sailed. This is why democ­racy in the Philip­pines has be­come a guise, as Mr. Duterte’s rule has al­lowed nepo­tism, crony­ism, cor­rup­tion, cen­sor­ship and a new form of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism to thrive. Such power doesn’t need to be ab­so­lute – just enough to al­low peo­ple like him to do what­ever the hell these new kinds of world lead­ers want.

This is dic­ta­tor­ship for our era, and Ro­drigo Duterte is its poster boy. But don’t you dare look away – we’re watch­ing its rise all over the world.

The Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion has long been try­ing to im­pose a fa­cade of le­git­i­macy by ma­nip­u­lat­ing both pub­lic opin­ion and the courts to es­tab­lish some sort of ju­di­cial truth. But ju­di­cial truth is not nec­es­sar­ily the truth.


Ac­tivists burn an ef­figy of Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte near the U.S. em­bassy in Manila on Nov. 30 dur­ing the com­mem­o­ra­tion of the 155th birth­day of An­dres Boni­fa­cio.

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