There is no such thing as bad publicity, and no phenomenon would better demonstrate this than the landslide victory of incoming president Rodrigo Roa Duterte. A polarizing character, a “love-him-hate-him” icon in Philippine politics, he has shown his immense understanding of the power of media and has definitely used it to his advantage, much to the epic dismay of his political rivals.
Digong and his image: Truth or strategy?
Hard-hitting. Loquacious. Foul-mouthed. Irreverent. These are just some adjectives that journalists have used in describing Digong. His statements, often controversial, have made headlines in the dailies, along with his bleeped expletives. Crooks, pimps, armed oppressors, corrupt politicians – fuck them all. From lashing out his frustration over the country’s maladies to complimenting beautiful women, Duterte cusses, and does so generously if he wants to. But after everything is said and done, who is Rodrigo Duterte, really?
In a press conference last April, Duterte tried to explain why he talks the way he does. In a report by Trisha Macas of GMA News, the Davao Mayor said he is actually taking the “posture of a radical” when speaking in a brutally frank manner to challenge the ruling class and public officials who seem to only care for the elite. He admits to deliberately being foul-mouthed to test the elite in the country, to test the waters of radicalism. Furthermore, he says his vulgarity is directed towards writers who could be bribed and would “slant his statements.” He even castigated the media as he told them “Don’t fuck with me.” Recently, his remark that journalists who took bribes and engaged in corrupt activities deserved to die drew criticism from the public and even United Nations Chief Ban Ki-moon. Duterte, who launched a profanity-laced tirade against the UN, could not care any less.
While Duterte’s critics could go on all day about all the wrong things that come out of his mouth, some of his supporters see his irreverent image as a strategy, which his former running mate, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, has admitted. In an article written by Retired Mayor General Romeo Poquiz in his Facebook account, he opined about the “most brilliant strategy of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte,” even calling the incoming president a “masterful tactician and strategist.” According to Poquiz, the Duterte apparently had an opening, middlegame and endgame strategy in his journey towards becoming the Philippines’ first Mindanaoan President. For a memorable opening, there was the non-filing of his candidacy after the deadline and later substitution (which had everybody in suspense). For his middlegame, he transformed his weakness of having no money and machinery into strength. Poquiz writes:
“He pokes fun and sometimes ridicules, double-talks, uses sarcasm, hyperbole, pun and other figures of speech. Cursing is one of his weaknesses but why do people get more excited every time he curses? He uses feints and subterfuges and lures and traps the enemy.” Moreover, this kind of behavior, usually hidden by politicians who want to appear flawless and decent, has ironically become a breath of fresh air for some. Instead of taking it against Duterte, they have viewed it as a gesture of vulnerability, of honesty, of showing one’s true self. Flawed, yes, but human and real, nonetheless – unlike the imagined and perfect public servant who doesn’t exist.
When it comes to differentiating the table image versus the real Rodrigo Duterte, one’s guess can only be as good as anyone else’s. What’s indisputable though is that Digong, with all his idealisms and profanities, made for interesting news on all media platforms, hence gaining extensive media attention and free airtime (while his rivals paid for theirs), hence reaching out to more people and eventually winning the June 2016 elections. No wonder, Filipino political expert Julio Teehankee has noted this as “the emergence of a maverick president that is tailor-fitted for reality TV and the social media.”
A love affair turns sour
Digong, before his media boycott, used to be gracious with TV appearances. He once danced with locals in Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho, enjoyed a sumptuous serving of halo-halo and toured Kris Aquino around Davao for her now-defunct morning show and even exchanged witty remarks with Vice Ganda. He was also generous with his time during press conferences – entertaining every question and even going beyond an hour or two until journalists are satisfied with what they have. He was dubbed the #NoFilter President, and the press always had more than a handful of quotes to include in their stories.
For its part, the media covered Duterte extensively – from his controversial statements, to giving a glimpse of his platforms and advocacies, to showing him crying in front of his mother’s tombstone as he was pulling away from his presidential rivals by the millions in the COMELEC’s partial and unofficial vote count.
Then the rape joke happened. And after that, him wolf-whistling GMA reporter Mariz Umali. Then his remark that corrupt journalists are not exempted from assassinations taken to mean the same thing as encouraging extra-judicial killings. And then the international press group’s Reporters Without Borders (RWB) call to journalists to boycott the Mayor’s news briefings that made him decide to shun the media so there would be “no talk, no mistake.”
“Sorry ha, talagang ano… boycott talaga (I’m sorry but it would really be a boycott),” Duterte said in an interview aired on TV5. “Ayoko na (I don’t want to do it anymore). Ang interview maraming mali, maraming criticisms (An interview has many mistakes and criticisms). No interview, no criticism. No wrong statement, no nothing. I’ll shut up, ayoko na talaga (I really don’t want to do it anymore),” Duterte added.
To be continued in Part 2.