War Over Words: Interpreting Mr. Duterte

Posted by cmfr | Posted in In Medias Res, Melinda Quintos de Jesus | Posted on 04-10-2016

By Melinda Quintos de Jesus

THE BROUHAHA over President Rodrigo Duterte’s reference to Hitler’s Holocaust is not the first in his relatively brief career as a national politician.  Perhaps, we can say that his career stands out for number of times his loose tongue has caused furious controversy.

We do not need to review every single one in detail as the incidents are recent enough for most of us to recall. But I note two because these were followed by frantic efforts to put his words in a better light.

Sometime in September, he reacted quickly with obscenity to a US State Department official saying that human rights would probably be taken up in the planned bilateral talks in Laos. The latest is one so unfortunate as to make us all weep. In defense of his resolute war against drugs, Duterte let slip what he saw as the likeness of his resolute war against “drug addicts” to Hitler’s genocide of Jews and others he determined as undesirable.

The president made the horrible comparison all on his own. It was not a response to an irritating question in provoked by an ongoing exchange. It was clearly easy enough to understand.

The press, national and international, reported the remarks. Predictably, international groups and governments reacted, mostly with outright hostility and condemnation.

His spokesperson and the foreign secretary scrambled to interpret the president’s words. They said, his words were taken out of context; that he was responding to a previous comparison made by the outgoing President Aquino who saw parallels between the rise of Hitler to power and Duterte’s quick ascendancy in a surprise campaign, warning about the demagoguery that precedes a dictatorship. Aquino made no mention of the Jewish holocaust.

The media dutifully reported these explanations lengthily. The Philippine Star quoting two officials, recorded Secretary Yasay and Secretary Abella as they put forth their take on the president’s words.  The first said,  Duterte did not say he was going to kill as many as those killed by Hitler, and the second said, Duterte made the comparison because he would go as far as killing as many as Hitler killed, as necessary to save the Philippines.

Over the weekend, veteran journalist Manny Mogato and Karen Lema of Reuters were on the receiving end of death threats and insults from Duterte’s rabid supporters on social media for failing to accurately report what the president meant.

This is not the first time that the president’s remarks have caused the nation so much embarrassment. But this is not the fault of the press. The only fault I would note is how journalists bother to report the attempts of the president’s men to explain what was said, when clearly they are as much in the dark about what he really means.

It is time the president’s team stopped passing off the blame on the media. They all have to realize that the president causes this problem and their efforts do not help but make things even worse as they get caught in a tangle of speculation and lies.

For his reference to Hitler, Duterte has apologized. That apology means he knows he should not have spoken as he did.

Every job presents a learning curve to the newbie. The President needs to learn that loose talk is problematic when it comes from the chief executive and head of state. His customary language is a problem as he is used to using obscenities, and slips quickly to “trash talk.” It does not help that he talks in circles and his points follows no logical sequence.

It is the president who must learn to change. Mr. Duterte, long-time mayor of Davao City and a single term representative in Congress has become the President of the Philippines. He cannot suggest that the public adjust to his style and not take seriously his every utterance.

Words have currency, they have value in the national conversation that is reported as news in the media. Sometimes, words are all we have to reflect the inner workings of policy. Thus, even the most experienced politicians around the world carefully work out their statements when speaking in public. No rambling, no having fun, no relishing of the rapt attention given to a leader that can lead one to pander to them as an entertainer, a clown.

Mr. Duterte took some time for him to decide that he would seek this high post and this control is a cost of presidential honor and privilege. It is a small one to pay for the power the position provides him.

Responsible journalists and gate-keepers of news must hold to our position and responsibility to report what the president says and the words he uses. When he makes a joke, it will be reported as a joke.  And presidents who are always joking in public do so at their peril. The position requires gravitas.

Checking reports on his speeches since his campaign, he had always wanted his drug policy to be taken seriously. And indeed, so many of the killings he only talked about in the past have already come to pass.

And so we document his speech, because what he says indicate the state of his mind, the path of government moving forward. It is a way of assessing what lies ahead for us as a nation given his political leadership.