Gag orders: When Duterte's 'jokes' are no laughing matter

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Gag orders: When Duterte's 'jokes' are no laughing matter
“If it is too ridiculous, it must be a joke,” Duterte said in December 2018 during the awarding ceremonies for the 2017 Presidential Award for Child-Friendly Municipalities and Cities. This was after the president said he used marijuana to keep himself awake.
File photo

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte's "jokes", expressions and his tendency for hyperbole may just be part of his style, but they are not just words, a political analyst said.

"The words of the president may be interpreted by the people, particularly the Duterte supporters, as a government policy," Dennis Coronacion, chairperson of the Department of Political Science at the University of Santo Tomas told Philstar.com.

Duterte's quips, particularly against the Catholic Church and its priests, have been in the headlines after Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle told the president that a bishop and some priests have received death threats from people who claimed to be working for the president's family. 

The threats reportedly came after Duterte said in speeches in December and January to kill and rob bishops, whom he said were useless but have a lot of money.

READ: Palace: Duterte's anti-Church tirades not to blame for death threats vs priests

Coronacion said there is a possibility that those who hear the rhetoric "would think that they would be doing this country a great service by carrying out the president’s orders, such as killing the drug users and harming the bishops." 

Duterte's strong stance, and words, against drugs and crime narrative won him the 2016 presidential elections. Speeches in the years since the polls have featured similarly controversial remarks, curses, and "jokes" as those that endeared him to his supporters during the campaign.

It has become almost a routine—or, to his critics, a running joke—that the president's controversial statements will be explained away the next day as the president’s “playful character,” a use of “hyperbole,” or a “joke” to lighten the mood.

RELATED: Palace on Duterte's comment on saints: People laughed, weren't offended

Harsh words for bishops

The chief executive has not made his disdain for the Catholic Church a secret. In his nearly three years in office, his verbal attacks against the church and its leaders have only intensified.

Last year, Duterte suggested bystanders to rob and kill “useless” Catholic bishops. He said in a speech of mix English and Filipino: “These bishops, kill them. They are useless fools. All they do is criticize.” He made similar comments at the birthday celebration of a provincial governor in January.

Duterte briefly softened his stance against priests and told those threatening to harm the priests to “lay off or deal with [him].”

READ: Duterte changes tune, now warns those threatening to harm priests

Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, one of the priests who reported receiving death threats, was supposed to receive the Ka Pepe Diokno Human Rights Award at the De La Salle University on Tuesday but had to miss it for his safety.

The bishop, in a message read by his brother, Sociology professor Randy David, said: “For over a week now, my mobile phone has been buzzing with text messages written in screaming and intimidating capital letters telling me that I was next in line for execution.”

David has been at the receiving end of Duterte’s tirades for years. The president previously accused him of stealing donations and of involvement in the drug trade.

The bishop has denied all the president’s allegations and stressed that he doesn't even take multivitamins.

READ: Barbs and the Bible: The continuing clashes between Duterte and Bishop David

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo on Tuesday said the blame for the threats against David and other priests should not be on the president or his words but on Duterte's critics.

"If it’s hyperbole, then it’s not an encouragement. It is only the opposition, the critics who make it so. That is precisely why they should be blamed for that, not him," he attempted to argue. Panelo said that people "have [gotten] used to this president's style of delivering his responses, his remarks."

The Commission on Human Rights warned in December that "[s]tatements that could embolden the violence against priests and other religious persons are gravely alarming in the face of continuing attacks against those deemed as critics of the government."

'Jokes' at the expense of women

Duterte has also trained his "colorful" language at women, prompting government bodies to issue reminders for people who are not president not to follow suit.

In January, the policy-making Philippine Commission on Women said in a statement that government officials are "supposed to uphold the dignity of its citizens, especially women, promote gender equality, and be exemplars of honor and integrity."

The statement was issued as the president reaped criticism for saying he had touched a sleeping housemaid when he was younger. His spokesman Panelo said the president's story was fictional and was meant to highlight sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

"If it was obscene, the reaction of the audience would have been bad, they would have been angry at him," Panelo said then, repeating a common defense of the president's remarks.

The PCW, in its statement, said "sexual molestation or abuse, including rape, are public crimes and a violation of human dignity," adding "it is an abhorrent attack on a person's self-worth and should never be used as subject matter to prove a point."

The Commission on Human Rights urged officials of the government in January to "refrain from making statements that may contravene its commitment to uphold the rights of Filipino workers abroad, such as the previous remark by the President claiming to have abused a female domestic worker during his teenage years."

The same commission has repeatedly warned against using rape as a fodder for jokes, saying in 2017 that "even in the context of a joke, the statement is a step-back to the advancement of human rights, particularly for women."

RELATED: Rape ‘jokes’ normalize objectification of women, CHR tells DuterteCHR: Duterte’s ‘42 virgins’ joke strips women of dignity, human rights | CHR: Duterte encourages violence against women

The president went on a historic visit to Israel on 2018, which sparked a strongly-worded editorial from Haaretz, a newspaper published in Hebrew and English, on the “controversial” Philippine leader’s visit.

The editorial noted before Duterte arrived in Israel that the president known for his “dubious comments” and whose administration has been accused of human rights violations had just made another “rape happens wherever there are ‘beautiful women’” remark.

“The president of the Philippines isn’t a wanted guest here, and his visit is a shameful diplomatic stain,” the editorial dated Sept. 2, 2018, read.

Extrajudicial killings

Duterte has also repeatedly said in his speeches that drug addicts should be killed. At one point, he said that the bodies of drug addicts would be used as “pataba” or fish food in Manila Bay.

A Washington Post article about finding a body dumped in Tondo referenced those speeches:

Summary executions are often characterized by bound limbs, taped faces, cardboard signs reading “I am a drug addict” and — in cases like Santos’s — bodies dumped in the city’s waterways. They are often found stashed in metal drums and loaded down with concrete, to try to keep them from floating.

The method is eerily reminiscent of Duterte’s campaign promises to dump drug pushers in Manila Bay to “fatten all the fish there.”

In another freestyle speech on Sept. 27, 2018, Duterte quipped: “What are your sins? Me? I told the military ‘what are my sins?’ Did I steal money? Even just one peso? Did I prosecute somebody I sent to jail? Ang kasalanan ko lang yung mga extrajudicial killing (my only sin is the extrajudicial killing).”

Former human rights lawyer Harry Roque, presidential spokesperson at the time, framed Duterte’s remarks—claimed by critics as an admission—as the president just being “playful.”

“You know the president. He wasn’t serious. He was just saying that because that’s what [critics] always say he does, no?” Roque added.

READ: Group to use Duterte’s EJK admission in ICC case

Lawyer Antonio “Tony” La Viña, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, said in a radio interview at the time that Duterte’s statement of EJKs as his only sin could be taken as “admission against interest.”

"Kasi nanggaling sa mouth ng presidente. Hindi mo na kailangan i-prove pa. Ang tawag diyan, admission against interest. 'Yan ang pinaka-highest and strongest evidence (It came from the mouth of the president. You don’t need to prove that. That’s called admission against interest. That’s the highest and strongest evidence) Because nobody confesses unless they mean it," the law expert added.

Several communications on alleged commission of crimes against humanity—naming the president and his top administration officials—have been sent to the International Criminal Court, whose prosecutor has yet to decide on whether the court had jurisdiction over the allegations.

RELATED: 'Jet Ski-dding!' Duterte says campaign comment just a joke

Off-the-cuff remarks that push policy

Thousands have been killed in the implementation of Duterte’s brutal drug war, but the president once made a joke on using marijuana to keep himself awake on a killer schedule.

On January 29, around two months after that joke, the House of Representatives approved a landmark bill allowing the use of medical marijuana,

In June 2018, Duterte directed police to “accost” tambays or loiterers as they are “potential trouble for the public.” This later included minors so that they would be “protected” from drugs, Duterte said.

This led to thousands being detained following ordinances created after Duterte’s directive. 

Roque said of the policy that lower-income people could just stay at home or find other places to spend their time.

"In Parañaque for instance, they usually hang out in barber shops or in street eateries (karinderya). In Parañaque, those serving puto bungbong, people sit there while they sip their tea," he said.

UST professor Coronacion said there have been no other presidents like Duterte who said that drug addicts should be killed—some of the president's supporters say this is part of what sets him apart from his predecessors.

“They were very careful in choosing their words and they never instructed their supporters to harm their fellow Filipinos in their speeches,” the professor said.

“For example, former President [Joseph Estrada], another popular leader, asked his supporters not to resort to violence in the aftermath of his impeachment.” 

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