As President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration nears the 100-day mark, one question comes to mind: Why was there no 100-day honeymoon between him and the media?
This “honeymoon” is a longstanding tradition in the Philippines. According to the late writer Adrian Cristobal, the first 100 days is the period when the President “traditionally enjoys a honeymoon of sorts with his traditional critics — the media, the political opposition and, in the Philippine case, a vigilant Church leadership.”
“The first three months are a look-see period for the media, a let’s-give-him-a-try season for the opposition. It is the first baby steps for the new administration,” Cristobal wrote.
But the way the media have treated Duterte leaves no doubt that this honeymoon period had been unceremoniously dispensed with. There was hardly a word of it in the days and weeks before Duterte came to office. In fact, the media had begun attacking him starting as early as May, two months before he took office on June 30, 2016. Even the drug-related killings that were happening at the time were being blamed on him — despite the fact that the President then was still Benigno Aquino III.
This adversarial relationship started during the campaign period as the media, not used to the rather loose mouth of then-candidate Duterte, took him literally in many things he said. One time he cited an Amnesty International (AI) report that said he had killed 700 people, and the following exchange happened between him and reporters:
“700 daw ang pinatay ko? Nagkulang ho sila sa kuwenta.” (They say I killed 700? They underestimated the number.)
Reporters then asked him: Ilan po talaga? (How many in reality?)
“Mga 1,700 (Around 1,700),” he replied.
The following day, the media reported exactly that.“Duterte: I killed 700? No, make that 1,700” (Rappler); “Duterte on Amnesty International report: I killed 1,700” (Philippine Star); “Duterte says he killed 1,700, not just 700” (GMA). And of course that added fuel to the fire that was Duterte’s alleged dismal human rights record.
In the last days of the campaign, Duterte faced what was perhaps his toughest challenge: the allegation made by vice presidential candidate Senator Antonio Trillanes III that he had P227 million deposited in an account at the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI). Describing the account, Duterte told reporters it contained “a little less than 200 million,” immediately sending the media into a frenzy. Of course it would later turn out that the account had only P17,817 in it, but the media had taken his exaggeration hook, line, and sinker.
Before his inauguration, Duterte had also said he would give a five-minute speech — an impossibility given his long-winded campaign speeches that often included a history lesson (starting in 1521 when Magellan landed in what would be called the Philippines). But the media took it seriously, and many pundits criticized him in advance for it. As it turned out, it was a joke, and he would give this advice to reporters: “If it’s a preposterous statement, do not believe it.”
“What President would give a five-minute inaugural speech? Filipinos will kill me if I did that… I’m just enjoying my last few days… I am enjoying… my rudeness,” he said.
Duterte was also aware that there was a growing rift between Davao City media and the so-called “national” media — those that are based in Metro Manila. Because of his longstanding relationship with reporters in his own city, he naturally gave the Davao crowd an advantage.
“If I say something like that, don’t buy it. If the answer is preposterous or ridiculous, whisper to the one next to you from the Davao media and check if I’m serious,” he told Manila reporters.
In a way, then, Duterte’s war with the media is self-inflicted. He seemed to relish playing with the media and was willing to take the risk of being misunderstood and misinterpreted. He seemed to be confident that while the media may not get what he was saying, the people would. And based on the huge support he has had since day one of his presidency, he appears to be right.
So while a 100-day honeymoon with the media would have been appreciated, in reality Duterte did not need it. It was enough that the people, whose language he uses, complete with curses and other inappropriate words, understood him.