After President Trump boasted of his “great relationship” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a meeting in Manila Monday, American reporters pressed Trump on whether he brought up human rights issues.
“Whoa, whoa,” Duterte said, cutting off the journalists. “This is not a press statement. This is the bilateral meeting.”
Then, Duterte told reporters: “With you around, guys, you are the spies.”
Trump laughed, according to a transcript of the conversation.
“You are,” Duterte repeated.
Hearing the Philippine president once again demonize journalists — and seeing Trump chuckle in response — struck a nerve among journalists and activists in the Philippines and beyond.
The Philippines ranks as the fifth most dangerous country for journalists, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least 177 Filipino media workers have been killed since 1986. In the past decade, 42 journalists have been killed with total impunity, the report said, and at least four journalists have been killed in the time since Duterte took office in June 2016.
Duterte came under fire last year for appearing to defend the killing of journalists, insisting that many slain journalists had been corrupt and had “done something” to justify being killed.
“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch,” Rodrigo Duterte, then president-elect, said in May of last year, Agence France-Presse reported.
He suggested many of the killings were done in retaliation for journalists accepting bribes or criticizing people. He also called one recently slain journalist “rotten,” the Associated Press reported.
The comments spurred widespread condemnation from journalists and activists worldwide. The Committee to Protect Journalists said his remarks threatened to turn the Philippines into a “killing field for journalists.”
Duterte himself has been accused of ordering the assassination of a journalist. In February, a former Philippine policeman, Arturo Lascanas, acknowledged his role in the 2003 killing of radio journalist Juan “Jun” Pala.
He said the assassination was ordered and paid for by Duterte, then mayor of Davao City, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and local news reports. The former policeman said Duterte ordered a “death squad” to carry out extrajudicial killings, which Duterte has repeatedly denied, Reuters reported.
Duterte’s administration has pledged to investigate and solve the murders of journalists. In October of last year, he formed a Presidential Task Force on Media Security designed to speed up investigations and prosecutions of media killings. But so far, there have been no convictions, and “little evidence that the task force has actively pursued attacks on journalists,” according to Human Rights Watch.
In a span of two days in August, two radio journalists were shot dead. Rudy Alicaway, a 46-year-old radio host, was fatally shot on his way home from work in the southern province of Zamboanga del Sur. Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot him, before getting off the vehicle and shooting him again as he tried to flee, ensuring his death, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
The following day, a 60-year-old local columnist and radio reporter, Leodoro Diaz, was fatally shot on his way home in Sultan Kudarat province. Earlier that day, he told his colleagues he planned to publish a report on illegal drugs, according to Human Rights Watch. Authorities have not determined a motive for the killing of either Alicaway or Diaz.
On Aug. 10, three days after Diaz’s death, an assailant shot 65-year-old columnist Crisenciano Ibon in Batangas City. Ibon survived the shooting, which police suspect may have been ordered by operators of illegal gambling. Ibon’s recent columns had shed a negative light on the industry, according to the Philippine Star.
The single deadliest attack on journalists anywhere in the world took place in the Philippines. The 2009 Maguindanao massacre left 30 local journalists and two media workers dead, along with 26 other civilians.
A convoy of family members and supporters had been accompanying a local vice mayor on the island of Mindanao to register his candidacy for upcoming gubernatorial elections, according to a lengthy report in Human Rights Watch called “They Own the People.”
Around 30 members of the news media went along to cover the event. As the group drove down the highway, about 200 armed men forced them out of their vehicles and summarily executed them all, burying them at the site.
Eight years later, not a single person has been convicted in connection with the mass killing. Three suspects were acquitted in July because of lack of evidence, the Philippine Star reported.
“The fact that no one has yet been convicted nearly eight years after the massacre underscores the fact impunity reigns in this country,” the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said in a statement.
“Impunity exists to this day under the Rodrigo Duterte government, which is not doing any better than his predecessors,” the union continued. “In fact, he himself justified the killings of journalists.”
“Fake news” in the Philippines — in the form of dubious and counterfeit online news sites — has built support for Duterte, Miguel Syjuco, a Filipino professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, wrote in the New York Times. These sites have featured false endorsements of Duterte from leaders such as Pope Francis and Angela Merkel, and celebrities including Angelina Jolie and Dwayne Johnson.
During the presidential election, Duterte’s social media team paid hundreds of prominent online commentators to post a barrage of pro-Duterte comments on social media and bash critics. As the New Republic reported, online trolls with fake social media accounts can earn up to $2,000 a month to post pro-Duterte propaganda on the Web.
The messages seemed to work — the president maintained approval ratings above 60 percent until last month, when his net satisfaction rating fell to 48, classified as “good,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
The drop in ratings comes as the president continues to wage a bloody drug war that has claimed thousands of lives in extrajudicial killings by police or hit men.
According to the International Press Institute, Duterte’s assaults on the news media seem to be rubbing off on his supporters. Journalists who are critical of Duterte’s policies or write about issues such as drug trafficking or corruption face defamation suits and online backlash, IPI reported.
On Monday, journalists and human rights activists on social media were quick to point out that accusing journalists of being spies is no joke in the Philippines — or anywhere, for that matter. Some criticized Trump for laughing at Duterte’s comment, while others said they weren’t all that surprised.
Trump has frequently lashed out at the news media, which he has called “the enemy of the American People.” He wrote on Twitter last month that NBC News should be punished by regulators after the organization published a report that he did not like.
He suggested that networks that report “fake news” should be stripped of their licenses. First Amendment advocates condemned his comments as an attack on the Constitution.
“It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write,” Trump said. “And people should look into it.”
In August, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the United Nations’ human rights chief, said that freedom of the press is “under attack from the president.”
“To call these news organizations ‘fake’ does tremendous damage,” he said. “I have to ask the question: Is this not an incitement for others to attack journalists?”