Media’s Discursive Influence on the Philippines’ War on Drugs

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte. His entry into politics was messianic. His predecessor an heir to his parents’ legacy, a beneficiary of continuing public regard for a family name attached to a collective victory over a vicious dictatorship. He came at a time when government was colored “yellow” — and its shade fading from good governance to elitist leadership. Filipinos were disappointed for the more that could have been done but did not happen, disgruntled over vindictive politics marred by friends and allies. An extended family affair in the same way that it was his family name and the death of his mother that became a factor in winning the public over. It was a time for change — one from an almost-always cerebral engagement that almost-always found an excuse to a strong political will peeled raw that mobilized action on the ground.

By the scope of his political experience, President Duterte was an underdog, more like a David up against the Goliath. He was equipped with a pebble of credentials against an archipelagic requirement to be president. His slingshot of ethnic minority dwarfed by a machinery of proportions from the perceived center of be and end all. Perhaps the wind was in his favor — the public clamor was strong, enthusiasm contagious in finally seeing someone who was like them and one with them win — for a change. And like the story of David, he managed to topple down the giant. In the same distance the pebble travelled bottom-up, he leaped far from being a mayor of a city of roughly 1.7 million in a conflict-laden region to the President of the Republic of the Philippines composed of at least a hundred million.

“Who is Duterte?” Media had a significant role to play in answering this question at the height of the presidential elections in the Philippines in 2016. It lent a discussion platform that ushered in increased public consciousness of the man that was Duterte. That he was dubbed the Philippines “Dirty Harry”, a no-nonsense politician who avoided the luxuries of life but embraced a lifestyle that was not within moral bounds by the prevailing Catholic faith perspective in the Philippines. In contrast, media also pushed out to the larger Filipino public narratives that reinforced an image of Duterte being a man of his words, someone who wanted action done — regardless of the means, legal or otherwise, provided it is for the good of the people. Perhaps because of lack of materials that synced him with the public’s thirst to associate his qualifications with something of grander national and international scale, media fattened him up with his accomplishments as a mayor of Davao. How he transformed Davao from a city once feared for criminality and proximity to reported havens of terrorists into an economic hub and a tourism destination characterized by its culture of discipline was Duterte’s claim to fame. It was this image-building of Duterte that made the Filipino public hungry for a leader of his bravado. So even if political mudslinging capitalized on moral issues and the alleged extrajudicial killings in Davao against Duterte, the consistent blend of rhetoric and action — and flat, straight-in-the-eye admissions — of Duterte turned the tides to his favor. People grew a liking for Duterte, instead; perhaps addicted to that distinct aftertaste. Immune, Filipinos became.

These images of political leadership of the Philippines are provoked by media’s reportorial representation of the country. Who Duterte was and who he is now is no different from media’s portrayal of his predecessor. Once the source of hope, carrying that flicker from the yellow ribbon, his predecessor and the administration he led were painted as a ghost of haunted past — abrasive in wit, divisive in party interest, and out to pin up the chalkboard political opponents who symbolized his Tuwid na Daan (straight path) campaign of good governance and doubled as a bullet-vest from unfulfilled campaign promises.

In highly democratic societies such as the Philippines, media (traditional and conventional: broadcast and print) continues to enjoy trust and respect. It remains the Fourth Estate, an entity in itself holding equal social relevance and influence as the traditional three branches of government: executive, legislative and judiciary. And it is in the same spirit of media being a catalyst for change in all aspects of social life that it holds power enough to shape public opinions, direct public policies, and move the country and its components to action. But while media remains a force to reckon with, it has over time proven to be failing in living up to the ideal in a democratic society (Coronel 2001). The competitive market and the economic considerations that come to play in media operations dictate what to sell and what sells. More than political pressures and state interventions, media also contends with the lack of journalists with the proper training in the field. Coronel (2001), an award-winning Filipino journalist whose investigative reporting led to the impeachment of then Philippine President Joseph Estrada, said this leads to news stories ideally bearing more impact to be “dumbed down” and drowned out by trivial and sensationalized reporting.

It is in the understanding of media with respect to the public sphere that we can plot out the trajectory of its discursive influence. Prevailing in the discussion on the discursive influence of media, particularly in the war on drugs of President Duterte, are three governing arguments: (1) Media’s discursive influence rides strongest on conflict and scandal news elements; its catalytic impact is dependent on the extent to which key actions continue to trust it; (2) Media’s discursive influence on “selective social reality” appeal more to those in the upper segments of society; rooted more in its being a Fourth Estate but capitalizes on familiar representations of authority and collective pursuit of social justice; and (3) High public regard for government — sustained by consistent core messages that humanize governance and demystify leadership — buffers off potential repetitional risks from media’s discursive influence.

Media and the Public Sphere 

Giles and Shaw (2009) wrote about the psychology behind news development and the impact (cognitive or discursive) of media framing on the public. They argued that media frames, which facilitate causal interpretation of a problem identified in media reporting, can influence decision-making processes. The part that media projects can easily be construed as representative of the whole. Media after all provides direct access to discourse channels and platforms, especially for the powerless. It can equally be a source of information as it reflects and responds to the public thirst for information. In the absence of direct access to official sources of information (i.e. government), the public relies on the media not just for relay but contextual interpretation of information. This contextual interpretation is established and reinforced by weaving critical pieces of information from different sources of authority, in a manner that supports what in journalistic writing is described as a “slant”. In literature, a slant could be loosely likened to a plot. And it is this plot that piques and sustains interest, and gradually influences public opinion then mobilizes action.

While media is disassociated by some with the public sphere, media is in itself a public sphere. It carries a marketplace of ideas and could pull the different sectors of society into the same marketplace. Foremost, media is a public sphere in that it represents public interest. It is oftentimes in the pursuit of public interest and public good that media is described to hold an adversarial and conflicting relationship with government. Media after all could easily be said to be a collective representation of the desire of the people to ensure government works and works in their best interest. This leads to the characterization of media as a watchdog on government and, in the Philippines, a vanguard of democracy (Coronel 2001). Excesses, anomalies and actions of government that run against public interest are easily picked up by media and dished out as essential items for public consumption. From there, the public is left to decide, presumed that they will act on it with a rational and critical mind for either personal reference or participation in public affairs.

Such is the case in the coverage of the war on drugs in the Philippines by media. Media presents the public with intended reforms and corresponding programs of the government to combat drugs, but content analysis would show disproportionality. Media coverage has tended to stick to what sells. In journalism, conflict and scandal are two news elements that sell like hotcakes to the public. And it is with this news element of conflict that media drives public interest and attention in its coverage on the war on drugs. There is more focus on the killings, reported to be extrajudicial, involving drug addicts. The photos, interviews, and statements by varying interest groups — which are naturally condemning — shift discourse from the issue of drugs to the issue of how the approach to waging such war has been violative of human rights. One can then observe this manifesting social control by media over the public. And this is the kind of exercise of social control described by von Dijk (2016) to have fulfilled the two essential conditions of (a) control of the discourse itself and (b) production of discourse. Media, on hand hand, spawns public discourse on the issue in a manner that directs focus from drugs and drug use to the reported extrajudicial killing of suspected drug addicts; and, on the other, keeps the public rotating within that circle of discourse under the same issue. And as media becomes more inclusive, getting more of the Filipino public on board, the more van Dijk (2016) explains social control to be effective as media bolsters itself as an open channel through which the public can access such discourse that would have otherwise been exclusive to powerful groups and their members.

Within this public sphere, the slant or angle that media pursues based on its selection of interviews, images or broadcast scripts creates a concept of “image” in the minds of people. What media gives, people tend to associate with a reality that pervades across the country. Easily, issues lose geographic identity (i.e. local) and are applied to be true to the rest of the country. By detection theory, the amount of attention that an issue gets and the consistent use of chosen slant or angle elevates the gravity of the issue in the minds of the public. It makes people think of the situation from an assumed broader perspective as delivered by media. Through media’s portrayal, people as private citizens become connected to the entire country and become party to a national discourse. Media’s slant on the war on drugs has evolved into a question of law: Is it just and right? Is it in keeping with the principles of human right? Within the public sphere, where media has become a conduit of the society to government and vice versa, people are empowered as citizens and stakeholders.

But “image” and “identity” are two different animals in politics. As is always the case, it is image or public perception that rules in the minds of the public. It is not much about what is really the truth as it is what comes across as true to the public. This concept of image and truth is, however, malleable. Within the public sphere, it could take on different shapes and forms. The conflict in the conceptualization of image and truth is then resolved within the social control that media has in so far as directing public attention and nurturing discourse. In many cases, as in public relations and reputation management, image is not necessarily identity. Image can range from as abstract as your of values, principles and culture to as concrete as your physical attributes and characteristics. But what the public knows about you is not necessarily what you really are as you know yourself. There could be a disconnect or a gap between who you really are and how they perceive you to be. While President Duterte and his administration puts out core messages that deliver the genuine intent of the war on drugs, the public may not necessarily accept them for what they are on face value. The colonial mentality that breeds distrust in government almost always questions the sincerity and veracity of information from official sources. It is in this framework of message delivery within a public sphere where competing ideas and interpretations thrive that media holds influence. Assumed neutral, media mediates and endeavors to put in motion the discourse in a certain direction. People look to media for answers to either source or validate their concept of truth. And it is in its function as mediator and it being in itself a neutral ground that media both draws and commands influence.

Double-Edged Reality 

After the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986 that reclaimed the country from the clutches of a dictator who’s wife made herself a global brandname through her collection of shoes, the number of media outfits increased. Gone was an era of heavy censorship that cost both serious practice of journalism and the lives of many journalists. During the Martial Rule, all major media establishments were within the control of then President Marcos and his cronies. It was a strategic move to keep the public off the affairs of government and hide as well the anomalies that buried the country in both debt and low morale. But there were icons of democracy in journalists who did not give up, those who comprised the “mosquito press” who put their lives on the line to divulge excesses of the Marcos regime and hit hard on the dictatorial government. This period becomes a reference point of any journalist in the Philippines today: to pursue the truth at all cost and in the greater good of the Filipino people.

The flourishing of the media industry in the Philippines following the People Power Revolution did not, however, prove to be healthy all the time. Came with it were varied and conflict commercial and political interests that capitalized on the same freedom that media had longed for following the dictatorship. Coronel (2001) lamented how media has also become proxies in the battle between political rivals. And over the years, the increasing number of media outfits proved to outnumber the decreasing supply of qualified journalists. This scenario ran against a backdrop of private media enterprises being more concerned about the business aspect of media operations, thus going by what is not necessarily hardcore and in-depth but what appeals to a public of decreasing attention span.

In the context of the war on drugs, media somehow floats a reality that detaches itself from an interconnectedness of issues, if not spirals into another dimension of the issue. The Duterte administration looks at drugs as a major problem in the Philippines that needs to be addressed. It argues that drugs is one of the root causes of social ills and criminality. It connects crimes of rape, robbery, kidnapping, smuggling, domestic abuse and abandonment to drugs. There is that reality of drugs that run the gamut of petty to capital crimes. This is the reality that the Duterte administration aims its war on drugs at. But in waging the war on drugs, media picks and puzzles up a different reality — one that still involves drugs but deviates from the reality that buoys up the war on drugs. Media infuses within the public sphere another “reality” that competes attention with the reality pedaled by the Duterte administration. This is on how the war on drugs violates human rights, that it has tolerated a system that favors brute force and undermines legal processes. This display of dual-edged reality starts out healthy and democratic, for after all, the public needs to be dynamic and comprehensive in its appreciation of the war on drugs; but the social control of media within the public sphere that is media directly or indirectly channels attention to that reality where media focus is more and media slant or angle consistent.

Implications of Discursive Influence 

Media’s impact within the public sphere can be understood from the basic premise of discourse theory. Karlberg (2005) wrote that discourse theory explains how our actions are likely shaped by how we think and talk about a particular subject. The same theory asserts the intervening quality of discourse in the movement and change in the levels of power. This provides grounding to how media is able to tickle public consciousness, increase public participation and engagement, and eventually influence the mobilization of action. Karlberg’s (2005) conceptual map of relative and distributive dimensions of power puts in perspective the dynamism of the range within which power operates in four sections: a lateral movement between two opposite poles: adversarialism and mutualism; and a vertical movement between equilibrium and inequality. It is within this conceptual map that the implication of media’s discursive influence and the nature of power could be gauged — as either promoting or undermining, affirming or questioning, centralized or shared, or dominating or capacitating.

To an outsider, the image that he or she has of the Philippines is contingent on what he or she learns about it. Oftentimes the immediate source is the internet, and on the internet — in weeding out what could be “reliable” from not — they would go for what recognized or credible organizations of authority say about the country. Rational thinkers outsiders are, the intrinsic characteristic of media as a purveyor of the truth makes it a reliable source of information in piecing together one’s image of the Philippines. And so, in effect, the war on drugs in the minds of the outsider is perceived a failure, one on whose proclaimed success rests on the poor, the presumed innocent, and the powerless. The discursive influence of media has elevated the war on drugs in the consciousness of the international community according to the same metrics that assess what to sell and which sells. It is in this global community which appetite for President Duterte the Philippine media has made insatiable that any intriguing material thrown at the foundation on which their interest in President Duterte lies triggers shock waves. The discourse is then calibrated from national to international,  the participation base broadened, and the issue picks up global relevance. Within that public sphere, the interests become more varied and the interpretations diverse that there is more pressure on media to muster social control; and, while the platform of discussion is elevated, keep the momentum up and running in the same direction as it had set at the start.

By its function, media, however, only presents what is happening on the ground. It cannot by the Journalist’s Code of Ethics fabricate stories or mock up scenes in order to enliven front pages. Philippine media and Filipinos would always pound on how the news stories, regardless of the implications they may have on the reputation of the Philippines, only mirror what is actually happening in the Philippines. If the photos of suspected drug addicts lying dead on the streets, bodies floating in the river, or orphans crying over coffins of their deceased fathers or relatives appeal strongly to emotions and create disgust in the war on drugs, they are but the makings of government — an outcome (direct or indirect) of the failures of government. They are after all, if to reflect on Karlberg’s (2005) research, a manifestation of the western-liberal thrust where social organizations harness competitive impulses in its relevant forms to achieve maximum social good. And so the broadening of the discourse on the war on drugs beyond immediate stakeholders (Filipinos) has resulted to the international community pitching in their own thoughts and international development organizations expressing concern and condemnation. The United Nations and the European Commission are two international organizations that openly frown upon the war on drugs of the Duterte administration. They called for the Philippines to put an end to it and restore legal processes in the resolution of the drug menace in the country. Putting more pressure is the involvement of the foreign press within the public sphere, further expanding the relevance and reach of the issue, and affirming the discursive influence of media.

Philippine media’s discursive influence on legislation has, however, not proven to be effective. At least no legislation has been effected to change or improve the implementation of war on drugs or ensure that justice is administered throughout the process of reforming or making those involved in drugs accountable. There have been Congressional and Senate hearings conducted though on the reported extrajudicial killings and accusations made by some witnesses that President Duterte is involved in them, as he was reportedly behind the same back when he was mayor of Davao. But the discursive influence of media somehow only initiates process to as far as there is something symbolic of action and response on the part of the legislative branch. The felt lack of action on the part of the legislative branch to encourage its co-equal executive branch to institute changes to its war on drugs media makes up for by being an alternative source of assurance that the system will work, that there is a weakness in the war on drugs, and that the society still does not condone any and all forms of human rights violation. This counter activity done by media in the context of competitive impulses as propounded by Karlberg (2005) keeps the discourse on the war on drugs moving within its slant or angle of human rights violation. It constantly challenges government to fuel this discourse as well, as government by social contract is duty-bound to respond, given that media works within a public sphere as mediator and an access point of the powerless to government and vice versa.

Massifying Discourse 

In the discourse on the war on drugs of the Duterte administration, there is interestingly wider participation and collaboration among and across social classes in the Philippines. This develops participatory democracy and makes for a more dynamic relationship between media, power and public — the essential combination for the production of politics (Livingstone & Lunt, 1994). This does not discount though the fact that there are groups within and across social classes who remain opposed to and critical of the war on drugs. With media granting access to discourse that would otherwise have been limited to the elites and the powerful, there is greater propensity from the poor and the marginalized to voice out their concerns and engage in the public debate. The issue on the war on drugs has empowered people to speak up. It has mobilized people from numbness and political hibernation, with the discourse being more inclusive and the interplay of arguments lending credence to everyone regardless of socio-economic orientation or political affiliation. If not for anything else, media has massified the discourse on the war on drugs — with the rich now speaking for and on behalf of the need for it in order to help address social ills that make life harder for the poor; and the poor bewailing how the campaign being carried out by a populist leader ironically targets the weak and fails to run after the powerful. This unique reversal, if not interchangeability, of position breaks traditional paradigms and social roles.

The internet has been catalytic in massifying discourse. Compared to their role in traditional media as mere sources or subjects, people on the internet are quasi-media in themselves. They piece together information, create their own slant or angles, and disseminate their views to their own social networks. Even for internet media — that which is reliable and either independent or attached to their mother traditional media organizations — you observe the same grassroots mobilization. Maybe because they are in full control and can be themselves — and have others who are similarly situated as them — they connect themselves to the issue on the war of drugs. This impetus to connect may not be as strong if media’s discursive influence is limited or weak, or if media has failed to shake the system with the “noise” it created reverberating across social classes and sectors. In the words of van Dijk (2016), media is among the “symbolic elites” with “symbolic capital”, thus it is able to set the agenda of pubic discourse and influence on whom or which issue the spotlight is to be turned. Media then carries symbolic power, that while ideological, enforces social control and mediates and shifts power from private to public (van Dijk 2016; Livingstone & Lunt, 1994).

On the part of government, President Duterte has managed to minimize, if not deflect, public outrage through consistent key messaging. His lines from when he was mayor to when he finally decided to run for president to now that he is president remains the same: that he is a leader that will protect the Filipino and the country at all cost. His image-building has also been effective in bolstering the genuineness of his statements. He comes across as really that — a Filipino who is no different from other Filipinos. Photos of him in ordinary clothes atypical of someone of his stature and position, staying in economy at the back of the plane with no fuss, making time to be with his family in his hometown, being there during the graduation of his daughter, sleeping in a mosquito net, shunning preferential treatments and luxury — these are representations of the simple life that he wants, what could be symbolic of a collective sacrifice and a yearning for a good life for all Filipinos.

President Duterte has also somehow massified his positions on the war on drugs. His statements are direct to the point, passionate and determined, and reflect the language and aspirations of the masses. Defending his war on drugs, he has made the following statements: “I don’t care if I burn in hell for as long as the people I serve live in paradise.” “A leader must be a terror to the few who are evil in order to protect the lives and well-being of the many who are good.” “I could make this sacrifice if only to save this country from being fractured.” “I will change this country even if it will cost me my life.” This painted a picture of a leader who is genuinely after the welfare of the people, particularly the poor and the weak. He managed to defend himself through this image-building in the minds of the public as someone who is waging war against drugs in order to end the suffering of the people and the country — what has been dragging on unresolved for decades. And he made this within the same public sphere of media and utilizing the same social influence of media. He utilized the discursive influence of media as well to shape his image in the minds of the people. So as media draws public attention to one dimension of an issue that potentially discredits the president, this image of President Duterte that media has helped implant in the conscious of the public doubles as a defense mechanism in favor of the president.

While Filipinos do not ignorantly defend President Duterte, this interesting play of power and influence between media, public and the government affords benefit of the doubt to the war on drugs in issue. Massification of discourse has also seen a polarization in the traditionally complementary relationship of public and media. The questions thrown by government against media on its objectivity and fairness have attracted supporters to undermine the credibility of media in the same tone as the administration. This then creates some adverseriality in the relationship between media and the public where the latter assumes unity with government. ###

(A course requirement in the class Strategic Communication, Master of Public Policy and Governance program, The Education University of Hong Kong.) 

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