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Opinion

‘Duterte’s dictatorship is complete with closure of major news network’

With the closure of the Philippines largest television network ABS-CBN this week, press freedom looks at its weakest since the Marcos era. Dr Tom Smith argues that the move has merely cemented what many suspected – Rodrigo Duterte has embraced dictatorship

Tom Smith
May 7, 2020
‘Duterte’s dictatorship is complete with closure of major news network’
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte does his signature clenched fist stance in 2017. EPA/Rolex Dela Pena

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has become one of the most deadly and powerful dictators in the world. In shutting down the major mainstream news platform ABS-CBN, the ‘family’ network as it is known, he has cemented his already murderous grip on the country.

In just four years Duterte has surpassed the 14-year Marcos regime (1972-86) which also murdered its own people with absolute impunity. Just as then, when dissent toward any aspect of the regime’s pervasive influence was severely curtailed, so is true again today.

Assassinations plagued public life at every level under Marcos – Duterte’s death squads now put them in the shade. His ‘drug war’ is estimated to have killed over 30,000 people, though nobody can know the true extent of the massacre. Investigations and accurate reportage are practically impossible in many cases. Journalists are regularly assassinated along with lawyers and human rights workers.

Families and society are bereft of justice and accountability. It has become increasingly perilous for many citizens and understandable fear has squeezed out any form of dissent in public.

Now, especially,  the country needs its largest broadcaster – and the oldest in Southeast Asia – to disseminate reliable information in the Covid-19 battle; paramount in the Philippines where anti-vaxxer conspiracies have contributed to deaths related to dengue fever and measles in recent years.

It is perilous to the public health of more than 100 million Filipinos when a populist president is able to waffle on about mythical ‘Filipino antibodies’ to Covid-19 in one breath and then call for the closure of ABS-CBN with the next.


The sheer scale and speed of Duterte’s reign of death and abuse is not just brazen, Duterte is proud of his endorsements from Donald Trump and elsewhere.

His style and actions are popular (to a point). Du30 (his social media friendly campaign title) has become a powerful brand if not now a violent and well-connected clan. Du30ism is undeniably a cultural and political juggernaut that shows very few signs of being curtailed.

He now controls every aspect of public administration with an iron fist (insert picture of that insidious fist pose he does at every opportunity). The 4th estate, journalism, is now severely (if not mortally) disabled and Du30’s power absolute – for now. 

His power over both the military and police comes from a tired but effective form of patronage used normally bonds local clans, mayors and powerful figures to the ‘big boss’ in Manila. The military have been overtly politicised and conversely politics and culture increasingly militarised.

Duterte has not just masked assassins on the back of motorbikes, but ones in uniform too. Just as with Marcos, it will take decades to repair public trust and legitimacy in the security services.

Politicisation of the judiciary is arguably worse and incredibly tedious to overturn. Duterte has appointed 11 of the 15 judges to the High Court, including Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta.

The regime has now also begun to target the education sector, as cruelly cynical as that is, robbing the next generations of a more progressive future. Mandatory military training is being pushed in high school education to further militarise society. Students are being falsely targeted in the drug war and in the fight against communist insurgents.

When unapologetically racist, sexist and misogynistic leaders have this degree of power there is little hope that his brand of populism is on the wane anytime soon

Without a free media, new forms of public inquiry will be needed but social media is no salvation of course; it was the horse Du30 rode in on. His DDS (Duterte Diehard Supporters / Duterte Death Squads) patrol online and offline and no one is safe or free to speak. ‘The Big Boss’ has his army of trolls and it feels little has changed across much of Southeast Asia since 1971 and Bruce Lee busted out of Hong Kong to global appeal in his movie of the same title.

But there is no Bruce Lee on the horizon to work his Fist of Fury (the movie’s American title) through Du30s goons to a big showdown at the presidential palace. The cultural trope of Big Bossism is so entrenched through computer games, film and TV across Southeast Asia, only now the battle is fought with bots and keyboards not Kung Fu.

Shutting down ABS-CBN does not merely ‘echo’ the Marcos dictatorship; it is a continuation of the weaknesses in the Filipino state that never left us.  Duterte is the most recent incarnation of the Big Boss wielding the same power in a new more potent and deadly fashion.

When unapologetically racist, sexist and misogynistic leaders have this degree of power there is little hope that his brand of populism is on the wane anytime soon. It took 14 years of painful brewing to remove Marcos through the people power revolution. I fear this may be the country’s last few breaths of freedom for quite some time. 


Tom Smith is a Principal Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. He lived and taught in the Philippines at De La Salle University in Manila.



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