Should President Duterte talk to journalists?

Photo: Facebook page of Rodrigo Duterte
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By: Holly Reeves

President Duterte has decided he will not talk to the press. His boycott comes after calls from an international media rights group to take the new leader of the Philippines to task on his comments about killing journalists, but can you be an effective leader without the press in your pocket?

“That’s it. I don’t want to be interviewed. If I commit a mistake, there will be more criticisms,” Duterte said. “So it’s better (if there’s) no interview, no criticisms, no wrong statements, no nothing. (I will just) shut up. I really don’t want it,” adding this would be, “until the end of my term.”

The reason, he says, is that the “media goes for sensationalism,” so he will only hold interviews or give official statements via PT4, the state’s government-run TV network. “Media is always asking for fairness and correctness, but they are the ones corrupting the institutions,” the president said.

The national press has not taken the decision easily. In a group editorial leading reporters reminded Duterte that the fourth estate of the press is vital for democracy. As, “the people’s private eye in the public arena,’ the news media serve as, “custodian and gatekeeper of some of these rights.”

The shape of new politics

And they make an important point. For Duterte to be stand true to his promise of new politics his actions must be reported, discussed and investigated by those with an eye for the old ways of corruption, distrust and poor management. No-one is better equipped for that than a news media always looking for the next big story.

“It’s a task that must be accomplished,” says the editorial, explaining, “the President-elect’s predecessors as well as the nation’s journey from democracy to dictatorship and back illustrate why and how we must inquire into, inveigh against, and investigate questionable public officials and agencies, on the citizens’ behalf.”

However, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said that he thinks the Duterte will not be giving interviews again anytime soon. “It’s not secrecy…” Abella said, adding, “Let’s put it this way, I am not speaking for him, but I am speaking let’s say as a person who is observing the whole situation, that he wants to devote his first 100 or so days to work and he doesn’t want it hampered by having to answer little noises.”

Access to information

However, it wouldn’t be fair to claim that Duterte is not open in the workings of his government. In fact he recently took the ground-breaking step of agreeing to implement freedom of information (FIO) through an executive order if Congress refuses to pass a measure agreeing it.

“If Congress does not like it, I will start with this progressively. To avoid too much talk, Day One, freedom of information, I will impose it on my department, the executive department,” he said. “I will issue an executive order. No need for a law. Media and everybody else is welcome to dig deep into the papers,” he added. An announcement on the order is expected in the next week.

It’s not the first time the measure, which would allow the public access to transaction details and records of agencies on request, has been suggested. It was previously recommended under the Aquino government but was repeatedly overlooked by prominent lawmakers who feared it might be used against them. Instead, an executive order straight from the President would bring the obligation to share information straight into play.

And despite the fractious relationship he has had with journalists, his team are working on a presidential task force against media killings to “give members of media peace of mind” and stop the extrajudicial killings of reporters. He may not want to talk to them but his actions seems to suggest he understands the place, and importance, of the press.

The mood of the people?

Although the focus on matters of government rather than the mood of the media is in many ways commendable, Duterte is fighting a losing battle. Even if he sticks to his commitment, there are other officials the press can talk too, or even opposing voices in the political spectrum that will have their messages amplified – all without his opportunity to respond directly.

Simply cutting off the primary source of news underestimates the tenacity and commitment of the press to reporting alternative sides of the story. And in the bigger picture, the media acts as a mirror for public opinion – unless Duterte listens he may miss the mood of the nation.

According to communications secretary, Abella, whether Duterte gives interviews or not, “the conversation will continue. There will be a conversation and what you need to know you will be able to know.” But without the watchful eye of the press, who decides what this is  – and how?