President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug policy offers opportunities for frontline journalism on human suffering, but it is a difficult story to interpret because it features a population that seems to be living in fear.
According to opinion polls, most Filipinos, in theory, support Duterte’s initiative, but they oppose the extrajudicial killings.
As for the president, he has called out his own police force for corruption, but is himself facing serious allegations of wrongdoing.
One of the leading news outlets framing the narrative, Rappler, is an online platform that also advocates for journalism as a potential source of the solution to the country’s social problems.
Marites Vitug, Rappler’s award-winning investigative journalist and editor-at-large, spoke to Al Jazeera about the challenges of reporting the anti-drug move under the president whose contempt for the media resonates elsewhere in the world where the populist right grows.
Commenting on surveys showing public support for Duterte’s drug policy, Vitug points out that Filipinos “want the drug suspects taken alive, and number two, majority of the respondents fear they may be the next victims of the war on drugs. So, there’s a dissonance in the surveys”.
An informal economy of death is worth looking into when covering this story, according to Vitug: “I believe that this economic angle that the police are getting paid for kills is the oil that greases this killing machine … but the challenge really for the media is to look for new ways of presenting this same story.”
For instance, Duterte has criticised the police for being corrupt, so: “What is their state now? Are they demoralised, do they still want to pursue the war on drugs? What real reforms are taking place?”
Duterte’s overall strategy in dealing with the media is similar to Trump and other “alt-right” movements sweeping across the globe.
“Because many in the mainstream media tend to be critical of his war on drugs, and not just that, his other statements and, and policies – he tries to discredit us, and to make us less legitimate in the eyes of the public,” said Vitug.
“Reporters are having difficulty actually, in conducting real press conference with our president. A real conversation. Because his press conferences tend to be monologues. He doesn’t want to be interrupted. He hardly completes a thought. So, the reporters are scared or intimidated to ask follow-up questions. So, our stories are not complete.”
Is the Philippine media partially to blame for bringing Duterte to power?
“Looking back, I think [the] fault of the Philippine media was that we did not take Duterte seriously. We only took him seriously maybe in the last month or the last two weeks of the campaign. So, that was our fault,” said Vitug.
“We did not do enough research on him. We did not dig deep enough. We wrote about the killings in the war, but not thoroughly.”
Source: Al Jazeera