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Duterte's destroying democracy

Ebbighausen Rodion Kommentarbild App
Rodion Ebbighausen
July 10, 2020

President Rodrigo Duterte treats all problems like nails because he has only one tool in his box: a hammer. But he still has a number of Filipinos on his side, DW's Rodion Ebbighausen writes.

Rodrigo Duterte
Image: picture-alliance/AP/T. Lozano

The Philippine House of Representatives on Thursday voted not to renew the broadcasting permit of the media group ABS-CBN after its license expired in May. Lawmakers determined that the company had committed tax avoidance, used questionable labor practices, did not self-regulate well and had thus abused its license. The rejection of ABS-CBN's application for a new permit had absolutely nothing to do with the content of the broadcaster's reports, the congressional working group insisted.

What is at stake here is no less than the freedom of the press and expression in the Philippines. ABS-CBN runs 21 radio stations and 38 TV channels in the nation. The broadcaster reports reaching about 70% of the 107 million inhabitants of the Philippines. ABS-CBN not only dared to refuse to broadcast campaign adverts for Rodrigo Duterte before his election in 2016, but has also showed the war on drugs that he initiated as president for what it is: a brutal offensive against Filipinos that may have claimed more than 27,000 lives during his four years in power, according to estimates by some domestic rights groups.

Ebbighausen, Rodion
DW's Rodion EbbighausenImage: DW

Duterte has taken a one-size-fits-all approach to governing: more military, more police, less discussion. This shows in Duterte's war on drugs, in "anti-terror" measures passed by the House and signed by the president earlier in July that allow for warrantless arrests and extended detention, and now in the vote on ABS-CBN.

Read more: Cyber libel verdict 'a method of silencing dissent' in Philippines

The president is taking the Philippines back to the era of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled with an iron fist from 1965 to 1986 — and sucked the country dry. However, Marcos was ultimately ousted after mostly peaceful protests. Back then, there was a broad opposition movement supported by the Catholic Church and other important institutions.

There is no sign of such a movement today. Duterte's popularity ratings remain very high. In a survey published in January, 82% of respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with Duterte and his government.

Read more: Is Philippines muzzling free press amid coronavirus lockdown?

Crushing all dissent

Duterte has profited from the fact that no real alternative to his rule has been put forward — even if it is clear that poverty cannot be shot dead, people who experience addiction cannot be cured with truncheons, and separatists do not suddenly adhere to society at gunpoint. There are few lawmakers who dare to speak out against Duterte and his policies. Senator Leila De Lima, who had criticized the president's drug war early, remains in prison after being arrested on trumped-up narcotics charges in 2017. The Catholic Church is divided and has lost a great deal of the respect it once enjoyed because of its lack of action on cases of sexual abuse by clergy.

Wealthy Filipinos are staying quiet as long as they can keep making money. Press outlets such as ABS-CBN and others that have come under constant attack from Duterte have a hard time competing with social media, where the president's armies of trolls spread fake news and shout down critics.

The refusal to grant a license to ABS-CBN is another nail in the coffin for democracy in the Philippines.