Saving democracy and free press in the Philippines

Image: Romeo Jericho

Even though it is a country with a liberal constitution and vibrant civil society which struggled long and hard against dictatorship, the Philippines is another proof of just how fragile those freedoms can be. The southeast Asian nation is a warning to Nepal that despotism is never too far away.

Just like Nepal, the Philippines has suffered a Maoist insurgency (see below). And although the conflict in Nepal ended after ten years in 2006, the New People’s Army in the Philippines is still fighting the world’s longest-running Maoist war.

Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos was elected to power in 1965, but gradually took over and ruled as a corrupt dictator until he was overthrown in a People Power movement in 1986. In Nepal, the first democratically elected government was dismantled by a royal coup in 1960, marking the beginning of three decades of a partyless absolute monarchy which also ended in 1990 after a People's Movement.

The oscillation between dictatorship and democracy in both countries have followed a parallel trajectory, which is why the populist despotism of the current President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected two years ago, can be instructive to Nepal to show just how easy it is for a democratic country to slide back into authoritarianism.

Duterte did what most elected strongmen do: exploit the disarray and corruption in established democratic parties, rabble rouse the public with nationalism, be outspokenly abusive towards the traditional elite, silence critics in media and civil society with threats, and use popular strong-arm tactics to control crime. In fact, Duterte was a Trumpian even before the United States elected Donald Trump. 

As mayor of the Mindanao city of Davao, Duterte is credited to have cleaned up the city’s drug scene and violent crime. He promised to do the same throughout the Philippines if elected. He boasted of having personally killed drug pushers. The Filipino people, disillusioned with weak and corrupt rulers and fed up with drugs and crime, rewarded him with a landslide in 2016.  His popularity rating is still above 80%.

The Philippine Congress is still debating the reinstatement of the death penalty but that isn’t stopping Duterte from ordering the police to hunt down criminals. There are no arrests, no charges, no trial, and the police have killed 4,251 people since Duterte took office. And that is just the official count, human rights groups say the death toll exceeds 10,000. Many are innocent, or minor offenders.

“I have interviewed retired police, and they confirmed the killers are not vigilantes, it is the police who plant evidence on the victims,” says Reuters reporter in Manila, Manuel Mogato.

What Duterte is doing in the Philippines mirrors what is happening across the world: democratically-elected demagogues are abusing the state apparatus to silence critics. Manila-based advocate Johnny Oyos says bluntly: "A lot is happening now in the Philippines in the name of democracy, but there is no democracy. I could be silenced at any time." 

Deuterte hasn’t stopped at suspected drug peddlers, nine journalists critical of his war on drugs have been killed since he came to office, all shot by pillion-riding assassins. Journalists regularly get death threats, or are silenced with defamation suits. 

Larry Que, publisher of Catanduanes News Now, was the first journalist to be killed under Duterte's rule. In his column, he had flayed the government for targeting the small fry involved in drugs while the wholesalers went scot free. The police officer accused of killing Que said he was ordered by the provincial governor. He promised to testify in court, but only if the slain journalist’s family paid him $191,000.     

Duterte himself has delivered scathing public speeches against journalists. The president got one of his cronies to buy the powerful Philippine Daily Inquirer. Last year he took the critical news portal, Rappler Philippines to court for violating investment rules. Founded by former CNN correspondent Maria Ressa, Rappler reporters are now banned from the president’s press conferences.

“We are trying to be economically viable so that we can be politically independent, and if that doesn’t work, we will go to the people to support our public service journalism,” Rappler’s Gemma Mendoza told Nepali Times.

Government lackies mercilessly troll Duterte’s detractors on social media, dubbing critics 'anti-national', and a section of the media toes the Duterte line.

Says Malou Mangahas of Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism: "Journalists' lives are at risk, so is people's right to know the truth. Journalists and human rights activists are polarised, which has amplified the threats to civic rights."

Filipino Maoists

Nepal’s Maoist insurgency dragged on for ten years and left a lethal legacy, but the rebellion in the Philippines also inspired by Maoism has been going on five times longer. And there is no end in sight.

A peasant rebellion known as the Huk Uprising against Japanese occupation was violently put down with the help of the US military after the end of the Pacific War. Later in 1969, the New People’s Army formally launched its armed struggle against the Philippine Army. Since then, nearly 45,000 people have been killed in the guerrilla war — half of them in an internal purge in the 1980s to eliminate suspected infiltrators.

Persistent inequality in Philippine society, perpetuated by feudal landholders who dominate politics, fuels the low-intensity war. There have been numerous talks and truces over the decades, the violence flares once in a while, the guerrillas have been restricted to pockets in Luzon and Mindanao. But the conflict continues.

Satur Ocampo, 79, led the Maoist negotiation team during the first talks with the government thirty years ago and now lives in Manila. He has renounced violence, but is still an ideological supporter of the Maoist doctrine of protracted people’s war.

Speaking to Nepali Times at his modest Manila home, Ocampo says the NPA has been cornered, but their revolutionary zeal is intact. They are ready to shed more blood, and the only way to end the war is to bring them back to the negotiating table.

“We should emulate what Nepal did 11 years ago with the peace accord,” Ocampo said. “The ball is in President Duterte's court, he can end the war by fulfilling his election promise to reach out to rebel leaders for talks, and push for a socio-economic transformation."

President Duterte won elections in 2016, projecting himself as 'a socialist' and promising to end the Maoist conflict through dialogue. However, once in power, Duterte has made a U-turn vowing not to spare the Maoists involved in killing police and army personnel.

#PushBack for freedom

Authoritarian populists want rights and liberties curtailed to promote stability and prosperity. It does not work that way.

Jose Luis Martin C. Gascon

The world is now less free and less democratic. What had previously been just ominous dark clouds to what we thought was the global march to democracy have now appeared as menacing twin spectres looming across the globe that seem ready to overwhelm us.

These two threats of violent extremism and illiberal populist demagoguery impose upon us a future world order that would no longer be rules based, but instead grounded upon the brazen power of brute force.

This unfolding scenario can no longer be brushed aside as a mere passing phenomenon. To my mind, this constitutes nothing less than an existential threat against that which we and all those who have come before us have painstakingly sought to build through many years of fighting against tyranny and oppression. Our very edifice of democracy that respects human dignity, promotes equality for all, and upholds the rule of law, is under threat.

In the Philippines and the world over, the very concept of rights is being put to the test on a daily basis. The importance of the rights of each individual is being sidelined for other so-called priorities of the State: economic growth and development, national security, peace and order, the fight against terrorism, the war against illegal drugs and the like. It is as if human rights cannot co-exist with other human values and ideals that are good.

On 10 December 2018 we shall commemorate the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year we are also just barely a quarter century from the time Francis Fukuyama declared his much-applauded ‘end of history’. But now, it is apparent that this once ascendant democratic consensus we had all sought to promote, nurture, deepen, and widen is once again confronted by a familiar adversary — fascism, albeit manifesting itself in new, reinvented, and popular forms.

Yet, fascism essentially posits the same old argument to entice all of its adherents: that in uncertain and difficult times such as the one we are currently in, the only security that is possible is that which can be delivered by a so-called strongman that we must obey and surrender our fundamental rights to.

It has come to pass that this false choice has regained renewed appeal by feeding upon the people’s frustrations with our governments’ failure to deliver on the public’s expectations, therewith generating overwhelming popular support for some utopian – even dystopian –vision of change that a ‘great leader’ alone would be able to provide.

There are societal actors as well that view freedom and human rights as ‘destabilisers’ and obstacles to societal order or progress. We now live in a time where there persists a strong current of opinion that is quite disturbingly tolerant of repressive approaches. Suppression of dissent is slowly becoming the norm, seen now as a legitimate way to maintain peace and social stability. The curtailment of rights and liberties in order to promote stability and economic prosperity is increasingly accepted as justifiable, and at times viewed to be even necessary. And many of our own compatriots now form a popular chorus for authoritarian populist leaders.

This is indeed the disturbing and challenging reality that we are all confounded by and confronted with. Many of these attacks are nothing new. But in my experience as human rights lawyer, organiser, democracy worker, and activist, the very concept of democracy and human rights have never been negated, maligned, disregarded, and even denied with such brazenness and popular support from the people.

As with other countries, the Philippines has had its share of challenges to the promotion of democracy and the protection of human rights. But our country has recently been prominent once again in the world stage for the violations and attacks to human life and dignity. In one sense, the Philippines probably is a microcosm of a world society that has struggled with engendering democracy, while constantly confronted with perils to human rights.

Let us be clear about this: an attack upon any of the people’s fundamental freedoms is an assault on democracy itself. Any harm inflicted upon or directed towards anyone – especially the lowliest and most vulnerable of persons – is an assault upon the core of humanity itself.

We are not against the State’s obligation to suppress crime as in the case of our so-called ‘war against illegal drugs’. The State is duty bound to suppress crime and in fact, in human rights discourse, it has an obligation to ensure everyone’s right to safety and security. However, the State must do thisvia legitimate law enforcement, and always within the bounds of the rule of law and with utmost respect for human rights.

Given these challenges, it is our responsibility to mount a response that will affirm truth over deception and hope over desperation. We are all called to defend our cherished core values. We need more democracy and not less of it, we must uphold human rights and not allow it to be curtailed. Democracy and human rights are important enablers of human development, creating the conditions that will help people thrive and reach their full potential.

In the face of these overwhelming threats that seek to subdue, silence, and defeat us, we must draw strength and inspiration from each other’s struggles and victories no matter how small or insignificant these initially may appear. The road ahead is difficult and uncertain but we must not be discouraged. Instead, we must march forward in solidarity to affirm a politics of civility and inclusion, employing strategies of non-violence, motivated by deep love for humanity, emboldened by an unrelenting commitment to stand up for justice, and spurred by an undying hope that light shall always prevail over darkness.

JOSE LUIS MARTIN C. GASCON is Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines. This op-ed is taken from the Asia Leadership Fellow Program (ALFP) online magazine called Voices of Asia that contains commentaries on the threats to democracy around the globe.