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Filipino students burn a caricature depicting President Rodrigo Duterte during a protest in front of the gates of the Malacanang presidential compound, Manila, Philippines, Oct. 19, 2017 (AP photo by Aaron Favila).

In the Philippines, President Duterte's Drug Crackdown Has Been Followed by a Crackdown on the Free Press

Monday, April 29, 2019

As the bloody drug war continues in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte tightens his grip on the free press. Find out more about what this all means with your subscription to World Politics Review (WPR).

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte launched his anti-narcotics crackdown immediately after being sworn in as president in 2016. The state’s brutal tactics drew considerable international condemnation when they were first reported. Journalists were invited by the police to witness drug raids, which often ended in lethal shootouts. Photographs of dead bodies gunned down by masked assassins on the streets of the Philippines circulated worldwide.

But the global outcry has since faded as the security forces have become more discreet and exerted greater control over information about the number of people killed. The police no longer alert journalists to cover drug raids or visit crime scenes. Killings have become more difficult to document, and affected families have become harder to locate. That does not mean, however, that the killings have stopped. To the contrary, they have continued apace in neglected areas like the poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of Manila, as well as in districts farther afield.

To learn more about the violent crackdown in the Philippines, President Duterte, and the price of his war on drugs, read Duterte’s Drug War Has Killed Thousands. Now the Victims’ Families Are Pushing Back with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Will President Duterte Prevail In His War Against the Press?

Duterte gained international notoriety for his crass language and ruthless anti-drug campaign, which has resulted in thousands of Filipinos being assassinated by police and vigilantes, their bodies dumped in the streets without the benefit of a trial or any semblance of due process. But at home in the Philippines, President Duterte—the populist and very popular leader—is quickly becoming known for another frontal assault on the practices of a free and open democracy, by relentlessly attacking his critics in the media.

Until Duterte came to power in 2016, the media environment in the Philippines was relatively free and diverse. Duterte has steadily increased the pressure on media he deems unfriendly, unleashing the power of the state against journalists and publishers, along with the withering backing of his supporters on social media, with the single-minded purpose of destroying and silencing his detractors.

In the Philippines, the free press could be the next casualty of Duterte’s authoritarian approach. To learn more, read As Duterte Ramps Up His War on the Media, Many in the Philippines Cheer with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Can the Philippine Judiciary Check Duterte’s Power?

With the press under attack, the Philippine judiciary has become one of the last checks on Duterte’s power. In April, the country’s Supreme Court attempted to prod his administration to allow transparency into its brutal drug war, by ordering it to release thousands of records of deaths at the hands of police and vigilantes. Well before this decision, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno, had stood up for judicial independence and tried to utilize the court’s powers to maintain a semblance of the rule of law. As the drug war ramped up in 2016 and early 2017, she repeatedly called on lower courts to apply stricter scrutiny to the Duterte administration’s actions. The Supreme Court has still often sided with the president, and few justices have been willing to take as strong of a stand as the chief justice on any issues. But when it has defied Duterte, the Supreme Court resembles judiciaries in several other shaky democracies where judges have held the line against graft and political overreach. Still, Duterte remains an exceptionally strong president, and the judiciary will not be able to stand up to him on its own. Duterte is increasingly wielding near-authoritarian powers, and the lack of a clear, coherent opposition movement further strengthens his hand.

To learn more about the Philippine judiciary’s role as a check on Duterte’s power, read Philippine Courts Struggle to Hold the Line Against Duterte’s Strongman Tactics with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Will Duterte Establish a Political Dynasty?

Duterte will face his first electoral test since taking office in upcoming local elections, and opinion polls—as well as the decimated state of the opposition—strongly suggest that May 13 will be a very good day for him. Duterte’s surprise victory in 2016 already overturned much of the conventional wisdom about Philippine presidential elections in the post-Marcos era. He became the first president elected from the southern island of Mindanao, the first elected directly from local political office, and the first president who was not clearly aligned with or against the Marcos dynasty. Duterte was also the first presidential candidate to effectively use social media to reach out directly to people and engage them in the electoral process in new ways. This was most noticeable among millennials and the very large but relatively politically unengaged Philippine communities overseas. The 2016 presidential election was the first one predominantly fought on social media, and Duterte and his campaign won convincingly in this arena. If, as expected, the HNP becomes the dominant party in the House of Representatives and the Senate after next month’s midterms, and then Sara Duterte, his daughter, becomes president in 2022, Duterte could well become the most influential Philippine president since Corazon Aquino, who oversaw the return of democracy to the Philippines in the mid-1980s, and arguably even Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country with an iron fist for over two decades, until 1986.

Despite his heavy-handed approach to governing, Duterte might end up establishing a political dynasty. To learn more, read With Midterms Approaching, the Opposition Is in ‘Dire Straits’ in the Philippines with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Editor's Note: This article was first published in August 2018 and is regularly updated.

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