Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes as he takes part during the Armed Forces anniversary celebration at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon city, Metro Manila. Dec 21, 2017. Photograph: Reuters, via Asian Correspondent.

‘Fake news’ and political bullies

By Erich Parpart

Press freedom in Southeast Asia is taking it on the chin again. In Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe face up to 14 years in jail for reporting on the genocide in Rakhine state, which apparently is an “official secret”. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is itching to shut down a news website that has been critical of his government.

“I don’t give a shit if you continue or don’t continue with your network,” Mr Duterte told a reporter from the Rappler, which is among the local news organisations that have sparred with the president over his “war on drugs” that has taken 12,000 lives since mid-2016.

Mr Duterte couldn’t resist adding that the Rappler peddled “fake news”, borrowing the expression that his good pal Donald Trump wields like a sledgehammer against any journalists who suggest that he is anything less than fantastic.

“Trump of the East” is another expression you hear frequently in connection with the noisy Mr Duterte. When he and the US president met in November, the latter hailed their “great relationship”, and human rights received no mention whatsoever.

Both leaders ignored shouted questions about the drugs crackdown as Mr Trump concentrated on rallying support for US actions against North Korea.

As for the violence on the streets of the Philippines, it’s probably not surprising that the subject is of no concern to Donald Trump, coming as he does from a country where guns outnumber humans and firearms killed some 13,000 people in 2015, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Why fret about an out-of-control president in a far-away country who gives his security forces carte blanche to kill people in a war the Americans know only too well?

The “war on drugs” was first popularised by US media in 1971 after former president Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one”. It has been fought in various ways and was even revitalised under the Obama administration but has failed to stop cocaine and heroin from flooding US communities.

Heroin use among American adults increased almost fivefold in the last decade with a link between misuse of prescription opioids and heroin becoming a major concern. Across the border in Mexico, a staggering 18,000 people were killed in drug-related violence last year. That’s far more than in 2011 when the government first declared its war on drug cartels.

Just as Mr Trump has brushed aside various reports of links to Russian skulduggery, Mr Duterte has cried “fake news” to play down the severity of his crimes against humanity. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 2,500 drug-related killings in the Philippines over the past six months have been attributed to the Philippine National Police as they had the implicit, if not explicit support of the president himself.

The message from Mr Duterte was clear from the start. “If I make it to the presidential palace I will do just what I did as mayor [of Davao]. You drug pushers, holdup men and do-nothings, you better get out because I’ll kill you,” he told 300,000 cheering supporters on the eve of his May 2016 election victory.

He has kept his promise and his supporters are still cheering him on, just as Mr Trump’s “base” stands by their man no matter how many lies he tells or how many countries he insults. He even claims that calling a country a “shithole” is just being a “realist” and his fans agree.

While the Rappler has sparred with Mr Duterte over the war on drugs, it is in trouble now because of its reporting on an unrelated matter. The article Mr Duterte singled out as “fake news” claimed that his aide, Christopher Go, had meddled in talks about the preferred supplier for the combat management system (CMS) of two missile-capable Philippine Navy frigates to be built by Hyundai Heavy Industries.

It’s a serious claim that merits clarification from the government, but Mr Duterte has instead chosen to lash out at the Rappler and take away its licence. (It is still in business pending an appeal.)

In Washington, meanwhile, scarcely a day goes by without Mr Trump reminding everyone that the media are out to get him and how unfairly they treated him during the 2016 election. He won anyway, so what’s the big deal?

Back in Manila, we don’t know what the future holds for the Rappler, but expect Mr Duterte to keep providing us all with material to justify the “Trump of the East” label.

Published by Bangkok Post

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