Militaristic mindset: News media’s failure to contextualize Sara Duterte’s NTF-ELCAC appointment

JEERS TO the news media for neglecting to include key pieces of information and important context in their coverage of the appointment of Vice President Sara Duterte, concurrently Education secretary, as co-vice chair of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), a pet government agency set up by her father Rodrigo Duterte when he was president. 

What’s the Story?

On May 10, Eduardo Año, the national security adviser and Vice President Duterte’s co-vice chair at NTF-ELCAC, announced the designation and its approval by the task force’s executive committee, which is chaired by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Media noted the appointment and the mixed reactions it elicited. The Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) criticized the appointment, arguing that Duterte’s “red-tagging activities will just get worse.” ACT said Duterte should focus on the basic education sector’s many problems.

The National Union of Students of the Philippines likewise expressed apprehension, saying that the post would be detrimental to students and drive the “witch-hunt of critical thinkers in schools” to “an all-time high.” 

The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s May 12 banner story noted reactions from some opposition lawmakers. ACT Teachers Representative France Castro said Duterte would have increased access to confidential and intelligence funds already held by the NTF-ELCAC, on top of the hundreds of millions already allocated to her as vice president and education secretary. Kabataan Representative Raoul Manuel said Duterte’s new post “did not bode well for academic freedom and the protection from militarization of civilian agencies.” 

What the Reports Lacked

Reports merely made note of the appointment and some reactions. But there has been enough evidence for the media to call attention to Duterte’s apparent preoccupation with security and defense even as she heads the Department of Education (DepEd) and Office of the Vice President (OVP). 

The controversial appointment is only the latest in a chain of developments indicating Duterte’s tendency to hew closely to the military’s line, even publicly supporting military policies and propaganda, such as red-tagging.

Even as far back as when she was Davao City mayor, Duterte red-tagged Lumad schools as a way to justify the order for their closure. During her campaign for the vice presidency, she announced that she would push for mandatory military service if elected and has been vocal in supporting mandatory Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Duterte also expressed a preference for the defense secretary post prior to her appointment to the DepEd.

Since taking office, Duterte has red-tagged critics (including lawmakers, teachers groups, and transport groups) on multiple occasions, even when valid concerns were being raised. She was also criticized for “muzzling” DepEd personnel through DepEd order No. 49, which ACT said compromised freedom of speech and employees’ right to redress of grievances. 

Duterte’s budget priorities at the DepEd reflects as well her militaristic bent. She argued that DepEd’s Php150 million confidential and intelligence funds (CIF) would be used for “security and surveillance.” She argued that education has a “direct link” to national security, citing issues of sexual grooming, youth recruitment to terrorism, and drug use. The CIF allocation exceeds even the state intelligence agency’s CIF by Php 9 million.   

What Could Have Been Done? 

Given all the past instances of Duterte displaying her militaristic approach to governance, journalists should have connected the dots in the reporting of her appointment to the NTF-ELCAC. Journalists should not have to rely on critics to air their concerns for it to become part of the conversation. 

It was also worth mentioning that Duterte is following in the footsteps of her father, who set a dangerous precedent for turning to the military and the national security establishment as the solution to the country’s problems. Neglecting to add this particular context as a continuing pattern gives Duterte a pass in her efforts to militarize education and sends a message that prioritizing security concerns is acceptable amid an education crisis

Media could also have added an additional context: that violent attacks on education is a serious problem in the Philippines. In its 2022 report, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack provided information about instances of these attacks perpetrated not just by armed groups but also by the Philippine military. The news reports could have also pointed out that the Philippines has not endorsed and ratified the Safe Schools Declaration, an important “inter-governmental political commitment to protect students, teachers, schools, and universities from the worst effects of armed conflict.”

Why Is this Important?

A closer look at what DepEd has accomplished under Duterte is warranted after nearly a year in her post. Both the DepEd and the OVP are civilian agencies. DepEd, in particular, should be focused on the many problems in the education sector. While promoting national security and defense are important, that should not be a key preoccupation of her department. Her tendency to use the department to enforce militaristic policies through the NTF-ELCAC not only distracts DepEd from its core functions – it puts at even more risk schools and education personnel, and dissuades officials like her from supporting efforts to make schools safe.