Media News Analysis

Foreign media threaten their own access

Foreign-media access to President-Elect, Rodrigo Duterte, is likely to be strained, given the amount of vitriol which they poured on the former Davao City Mayor throughout his run for the top office. Going forward, this could make their coverage of Philippine Affairs more difficult than it has been under any of his predecessors.

Foreign coverage on the 2016 Philippine Presidential Election was largely devoted to Duterte – other candidates and their policies were mostly left alone. Time magazine put him on the cover of its 23 May issue. Commenting on the exploits of a “political maverick” sells papers, gets website hits and finds interest, in this case, even with those who couldn’t find the Philippines on a map. This, then, was Philippine coverage, sales-driven for the Western market.

In the Philippines press, while Duterte also had his media critics, coverage overall was more balanced with the other candidates getting plenty of scrutiny. In the lifestyle sector, Duterte graced the cover of the 3 March edition of Esquire Philippines, a title licenced from the Hearst Corporation and in the stable of Summit Media, owned by Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng, daughter of Filipino business tycoon John Gokongwei. He also appeared on the front of the August 2015 issue of Asian Dragon, a bi-lingual business and lifestyle publication catering to the country’s Filipino-Chinese readers. In the polls, Duterte captured 38.6% of the vote – 15,970,018 people and 8,103,374 more than his nearest rival. This, then, was Philippine coverage, sales-driven for the Philippine market.

covers-duterteBecause of Duterte, the May election got more international air time and claimed more foreign newsprint than any that had gone before it – with the exception of the 1986 run by Corazon Aquino, the widow of an assassinated former senator. Time made her 1986 ‘Woman of the Year’. But that election was Act IV of a four-act saga that started in Act I, the killing of her husband on the tarmac of Manila airport, and ran through Act II, the People Power (or Edsa) Revolution, and Act III, the fall from power of Philippine strongman, Ferdinand Marcos, and his exile to Hawaii.

While the coverage of Corazon Aquino’s campaign by the Western media was for the most part measured, by contrast their reporting on the Davao mayor’s 2016 campaign was anything but. Even papers that pride themselves on their analysis of world events succumbed to character attacks on the man who will be the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines.

The Economist, for example, self-regarded as a cut above the rest, came out with polemic language worthy of a supermarket tabloid. In one of the articles devoted to Duterte, published on 14 March, six days after the result of his landslide election victory was announced, it had this to say: “… all that progress [referring to Benigno Aquino’s term in office] is thrown in doubt with the emphatic election as president of Rodrigo Duterte, a loudmouth pursuing a wildly populist campaign. After the dull-but-sound Mr Aquino, the great risk is that bad old ways are about to return … What he lacks in policymaking interest or experience, he made up for during the campaign with the showmanship that had been absent from national politics”.

And it didn’t stop there. In a second article in the same issue – headline: ‘Fist of iron, a new strongman president might prevent the Philippines from becoming an economic star’ – it said that Duterte “has offered only macho posturing … ready to tackle the nation’s problems just as one might wring the neck of a foul snake”.

A 15 May segment on Sunrise, a news and current affairs programme put out by Australia’s Seven Network, while attempting to analyse Duterte’s victory, could not resist descriptions of Duterte as a “show pony” who “makes Trump [controversial US presidential candidate Donald Trump] look like the pope”.

While freedom of expression is a vital part of reporting, the question, going forward in this case, is how much will the negative coverage of the incoming Philippines president by the foreign media affect their relationship with him, and consequently their access to him and his Cabinet?

The fact is, the Philippines is a story and one that’s likely to get bigger, given the events that are playing out there and around the region – the South China Sea dispute between Manila and Beijing, the economic challenges of supporting 101 million people across 7,000 islands on infrastructure that hasn’t changed much in half a century, the development of the Asean Economic Community of which the Philippines is a member, the Islamic-extremist push for a Southeast Asian caliphate spreading from the southern Philippines’ Sulu Archipelago.

In much of this there are global implications – these aren’t small provincial issues going on in a place the name of which most people can’t spell the same way twice. All that and more needs to be analysed and reported on, and for that it will need access to government. The international press and watchdog NGOs such as Reporters Without Borders, which recently managed to turn a fire burning in the Philippine press hearth into an international conflagration – Boycotting the boycotters –  can not further the understanding of this region if it cannot get access to its leaders. And that access is unlikely to be given if there are concerns that there is a media agenda which seeks to undermine the president’s authority, rather than report on the issues. We will be watching developments here closely.