National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose stirred up a massive hornet’s nest among the public and his fellow writers when, in his May 3, 2021 column in another daily, he baldly declared: “It may turn out that for all his vulgar language, Rodrigo Roa Duterte may yet be, next to Magsaysay, the best president we ever had. All the criticisms considered, just remember this—the country is far safer now than at any other time.”
The man is, of course, entitled to his own opinion. As a prolific novelist, a giant of Philippine letters who remains remarkably unwearied at 96 years old, Jose can’t be faulted for having a surfeit of imagination—and the poetic license—to summon alternate realities at will.
But he is not entitled to his own facts. And the facts are, as laid out by fellow writer Krip Yuson in his incensed riposte to Jose’s claim: “Safe from what, Manong? A record-setting number of murders, assassinations and EJKs of journalists, lawyers, activists, progressives, indigenes, political opponents, critics, and the random poor alleged to have drug links…?”
A cursory glance at the news would easily show who has a better grasp of reality between Jose, and Yuson and the rest of the Philippine literati who strenuously begged to differ from their elder’s triumphalist claim of a “far safer” realm under the Duterte regime.
On Sunday, May 2, just one day before Jose touted the Duterte brand of law and order, Capiz administrator John Heredia was shot dead by two men riding tandem on a motorcycle. Heredia was an executive producer and host of a cable TV program and a former national director of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP).
The NUJP has documented 19 cases of killings, 37 cases of libel, 52 cases of intimidation, 20 cases of online harassment, etc.—in all, some 223 cases of attacks and threats against the press—since Jose’s “best president” took over.
The Commission on Human Rights warned that the Philippines is facing “a worse state of press freedom” after the country fell to 138th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, two notches down from last year’s 136th slot.
Like the outspoken media, community leaders critical of the administration have been targeted by unknown assailants, or killed by police who typically “find” illegal firearms in the premises.
On April 25, barangay kagawad Froilan Oaferina III was shot to death when 30 policemen entered his house in Buhi, Camarines Sur, supposedly in search of illegal firearms. On April 15, it was urban poor leader Jesus Passon Jr., killed in Zone 4, Sitio Basurahan, Barangay Mambulac, Silay City. And on April 13, in Lumban, Laguna, it was Sangguniang Kabataan president Renzo Matienzo, shot dead by an unknown assailant who barged into his house.
Lawyers, too, have become frequent targets, with the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers and the Free Legal Assistance Group reporting that 61 lawyers, prosecutors, and judges have been killed during the almost five years that President Duterte has been in office. These unabated killings prompted a rare Supreme Court statement on March 23 denouncing the incidents as “no less than an assault on the judiciary” and “acts that only perverse justice, defeat the rule of law, undermine the most basic of constitutional principles, and speculate on the worth of human lives.”
The Philippines is not any safer for environment activists. Last year, the country ranked second deadliest in the world for people defending the environment—43 killings in 2019, according to the London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness.
What about ordinary people? The undercurrent of anxiety is deep, as revealed in the November 2020 Social Weather Stations survey where 65 percent of adult Filipinos agreed with the statement: “It is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.”
As for the administration’s “war on drugs,” a December 2018 SWS survey found that 78 percent of voting-age Filipinos feared (“nangangamba”) that they or someone they know would fall victim to being killed under that bloody campaign. Far from ridding the streets of violence and crime, the impunity unleashed by the President’s pet project has run riot in the country: Per Sen. Dick Gordon’s tally, from Jan. 1 to March 17 of this year alone, there were 93 victims of riding-tandem shootings, 71 of whom died.
Even helping one’s hungry neighbors has become an unsafe activity, with government bureaucrats red-tagging community pantry organizers and exposing them to the perils of arrest or harm by anti-communist zealots. “Safer” is the last word anyone would associate with these chilling facts and figures. Unless, of course, the fiction in one’s mind has overwhelmed reality.
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