Mirroring Duterte

by Karol Ilagan, Agatha Fabricante, and Christine Fabro | Case StudiesMindanao

Except for when the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) initiated a formal inquiry into his link to the vigilante group Davao Death Squad (DDS) in 2009, Duterte received little criticism for the most part of his thirty-year rule as mayor, vice mayor, and district representative. But the tide would turn when Duterte rose to power as president in 2016 as Filipino and international news outlets and human rights groups reported and investigated his administration's role in the extrajudicial killings resulting from his antidrug campaign.

A Philippine News Agency article published by the Mirror reports that the killing of four persons in "separate liquidation missions" in September 1998 could be the handiwork of the vigilante groups that had at the time "liquidated more than 100 persons with links to illegal drug trade since 1993 when then mayor, now congressman Rodrigo Duterte, waged wat against illegal drugs." But police officers would at several times discount the claim and say that the killings were purely due to personal grudges.

In framing drug-related issues, the news media usually convey the negative characteristics of drug users and drug pushers. They emphasize how drugs lead to the destruction of the society. Journalists thus tend to amplify antidrug campaigns of the government to draw collective support from the community and the society at large against drug use and drug-related crimes. It shapes a society that has a common goal and that is to eliminate drugs and its harmful effects.

The message was clear-that killings of any kind must not be condoned-but the Mirror did not describe Duterte as a subject of the inquiry or that he is being linked with the DDS. Instead he was written as a government leader who was invited to shed light on the issue.

(This is an excerpt from a case study written by the authors for the project, “Violence, Human Rights, and Democracy in the Philippines.” The project is a joint undertaking by the Third World Studies Center, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman and the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University.)

In Focus: Duterte Faces the CHR

The reporting in 2009 indicated somewhat of a tide change in the Mirror’s narrative of the drug war mainly because a formal investigation into the Davao Death Squad by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) was underway. The three-day inquiry triggered a variation in the kind of story being told, the kind that very unusually placed Duterte in the hot seat opposite CHR Chair Leila de Lima, who was grilling him. But a closer look at the articles put out by the Mirror during those days also included counter-narratives that challenge the CHR inquiry.

In the March 31, 2009, front-page story “What Peace? What Order? CHR Chair de Lima Asks” (Arguillas 2009), journalist Carolyn O. Arguillas of MindaNews wrote perhaps one of the lengthiest articles published by the Mirror. (Arguillas was and is not a Mirror reporter. The Mirror published a MindaNews report about the CHR investigation.) The story tackled the meat of exchanges between de Lima and Dutere in the inquiry, zeroing in on de Lima challenging the supposed peace and order claim and low crime rate in Davao City all while suspected criminals were being slain. De Lima likewise interrogated Duterte on why the killings have not been solved. In fact, the same March 31, 2009 issue and the following day’s April 1, 2009 edition carried reports of people being gunned down vigilante style. In true Duterte fashion, the mayor threatened to resign if proven that the killings were state-sponsored.

But it is crucial to note that Arguillas’s story appeared alongside another Mirror story which seemed like it was written in defense of Duterte. In “Duterte Assumes Full Responsibility for Killings” (Caduaya 2009a), a Mirror reporter, wrote about how it was actually the mayor who asked both the CHR and NBI to conduct an investigation into the killings. Both MindaNews’ and the Mirror’s stories were placed on the front page, but the Mirror piece was the banner story; below it was the MindaNews report.

In the March 31, 2009 issue, in light of the CHR inquiry, the Mirror also published an editorial titled “Public Hearing” that condemned the summary killings: “There is no place in civilized society for the summary killing of even the vilest of criminals; each person deserves due process, and to accept their being killed unceremoniously in the streets is to dehumanize not just the victims but also the entire community. A city that accepts summary killings as a method of maintaining peace and enforcing justice will soon find itself having neither peace nor justice.”

The message was clear—that killings of any kind must not be condoned—but the Mirror did not describe Duterte as a subject of the inquiry or that he is being linked with the DDS. Instead he was written as a government leader who was invited to shed light on the issue.

The editorial also took a swipe at the “so-called civil society” who only condemns the killings when they “come too often and too close to each for comfort.” It also cast doubt on whether the inquiry would do any good because witnesses, it said, would be discouraged to come forward if there is a general belief that the killings were state-sponsored.

The following day, on April 1, 2009, the Mirror’s banner headline read: “Duterte Gives Up Control over Police” (Caduaya 2009b). Duterte resigned as supervisor of the Davao City Police and Task Force Davao supposedly to give CHR “a free hand” in its investigation of the unsolved killings in the city.

On page 8 of the same issue, the Mirror reported that Nograles ordered the House of Representatives —to probe the Davao City killings. The then House speaker said that the summary killings were “an international embarrassment,” as it became the subject of Philip Alston’s report. Alston was the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.

The CHR investigation also paved the way for the Mirror to follow up and print other stories such as the Human Rights Watch report about how the killings may be state-sponsored and a report about a barangay official saying that the killings have no public approval.

But stories like “DCCCII Exec Backs Duterte” (Alama 2009) and “Is There Basis for CHR Probe?” (PNA 2009b) also came out. In the first story, Davao City businessmen were reported as standing by Duterte in the midst of the CHR investigation. Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc. (DCCCII) President Simeon Marfori Jr. says that he has seen the dark days of Davao before Duterte became mayor. “Those were the times of the Alsa Masa and when policemen were gunned down in broad daylight . . . Our generation remembered those times,” Marfori said, adding that he believed Duterte was principally responsible in cleaning up the city and that it was enjoying the fruits of his efforts. Lawyer Nonoy Villa-Abarille, another Davao businessman, said in the same article that de Lima should have seen Davao City in the 1980s in order to appreciate what the absence of peace and order means to Davaoeños.

The stories published after the CHR inquiry largely leaned in support of Duterte, from clearing his name in the killings in “CHR Admits: Nothing Links Duterte to Summary Killings” (Caduaya 2009c), “Activist Says CHR Erred in DDS Probe” (Caduaya 2009e), and “CHR Admits Singling Out Davao City on Killings” (Suelto 2009) to stories that put blame on the CHR investigation in “Crimes on the Rise as Duterte Goes on Leave” (Caduaya 2009d) and “CHR Probe Worsened Crime in Barangay 76-A: Olanolan” (Padillo 2009), among other reports. All these came out in the same year when then President Gloria Arroyo was waging her own drug war.

It can be observed, too, that because the Mirror still relied heavily on government sources, the stories tended to shift toward the political side of things—again about the heightened rivalry between Rodrigo Duterte and Prospero Nograles—and not so much about the victims or how the investigation will move forward. Reports about the CHR inquiry were soon followed with articles about then House Speaker Nograles initiating a twin investigation in the House of Representatives and his son Karlo, who had his own radio program, criticizing Duterte and the summary killings (PNA 2009c).