When Rodrigo Duterte took office as president of the Philippines on June 30, 2016, he immediately launched his biggest campaign promise: a war on drugs. Since then, masked men, widely thought to be police officers, have killed an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 people. Many of the victims are drug pushers or users, while some families maintain the victims had no connection to drugs at all. But before Duterte took office, as president-elect, he sent a chilling message to a press corps ready to report on his presidency: "Just because you're a journalist, you're not exempted from assassination, if you are a son of a bitch," he said casually at a press conference. "Free speech won't save you, my dear."
Discussion of oppressed journalists generally focuses on Russia, China, Turkey, Syria, and Mexico. What many don't know is that outside of active war zones, the deadliest place to be a journalist is the Philippines.
Despite boasting the longest-standing democracy in Southeast Asia and a functioning free and independent press, journalism in the Philippines has a dark history. The quick version of it is that its free press was born out of Spanish colonial rule and hit its golden age after liberation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II. "Historically, it was the revolutionary press that forced Filipinos to express their dissatisfaction with the colonial powers," Melinda Quintos de Jesus, a veteran Filipino journalist and the executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, told me in her Manila office in January. "So the historical role I think is deeply embedded in our sense of ourselves as a democratic community."
In 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, ushering in a period during which all news media was tightly controlled. Cory Aquino, the wife of an assassinated opposition leader, toppled Marcos in 1986, and constitutional protections for journalists were reinstated. Since then, journalists have been able to do their jobs—though at times with the risk of losing their lives.
But in 2009, another election cycle brought the single deadliest event for journalists in world history on Mindanao, an island in the southern Philippines. A group of reporters covering Esmael Mangudadatu, the leader of the party opposing then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was traveling with his wife to the Commission on Elections, where Mangudadatu would submit for candidacy. Before the convoy reached its destination, a group of armed men stopped, abducted, and killed the group of 58 people, which included more than 30 members of the media. The corpses were thrown into a mass grave, and despite there being evidence against the assailants, not one person has been convicted to this day. Even with this national track record, the Philippines has never seen a president quite like Duterte, whose rise to power in 2016 seemed to have caught the current of nationalist movements worldwide.
President Duterte's approach to dealing with the public might sound familiar: When he was inaugurated, he only allowed state-run media to cover it; independent reporters were forced to sit outside. Throughout his campaign, he relied heavily on social media to push his agenda and harass anyone supporting his opponent.
"They've been the cleverest communication team—the use of social media, the manipulation of messaging," de Jesus explained. Many suspect that Duterte's administration hired hundreds of thousands of trolls to promote and harass on his behalf. Journalists who challenge the president face a torrent of abuse, de Jesus added. "They can expect to have a barrage of really terrible responses, including threats, name-calling, cussing, calling you a 'paid hack,' a part of the 'presstitute.' But worse, they have gone as far as basically saying, 'We know where you live. We have your telephone numbers. We know where your children go to school. We know who and where your family is.'" De Jesus continued, "You know that you have been watched not just by ordinary people who hate you but people who have the power to investigate and to track you and to know where you are."
Duterte has presented himself as the anti-elitist, the people's candidate who isn't afraid to sling profanities in public. He garners support through his crass verbiage. In response to a question that a reporter asked him about his health, Duterte replied, "How is the vagina of your wife? Is it smelly? Or not smelly? Give me the report." When the EU told him to end his war on drugs, in a televised speech, he said, "I have read the condemnation of the European Union. I'm telling them, 'Fuck you.'" After President Obama spoke of his alarm at the violence of the drug war, the Filipino president called Obama "a son of a whore" during a news conference. When Pope Francis visited the Catholic country, Duterte complained, "I want to call, 'Pope, you son of a bitch, go home. Don't visit here anymore.'"
While much of this rhetoric seems completely insane for a head of state, it's working. Last fall, Duterte's approval rating was around 86 percent. He's been able to intimidate much of the press and very effectively manage the messaging that reaches the public.
During my visit to Manila, I attended what I thought would be a press conference during which the chief of police would make a statement on the country's anti-drug efforts. Instead, the scene was more akin to a music festival. Thousands of young people with glowing bracelets took iPhone photos of their favorite pop stars performing on the stage. Within minutes of arriving, I heard excited screams followed by a stampede of police officers, shielding who I assumed was the Filipino Beyoncé. Instead, an introduction bellowed, "Please welcome, chief of police, Ronald 'Bato' dela Rosa!" There were screams, cheers, iPhone flashes. Extrajudicial killings, like the thousands that have already taken place in the last seven months, were likely taking place the same night that thousands of teens cheered on dela Rosa, the mastermind behind this war on drugs.
It soon became clear that this plump man wearing a snug police uniform was there to perform. Over a melody reminiscent of a 90s love song, he sang, "If you need progress, if you need someone to sympathize, I'll be there, I'll be there."
At the end of his ballad, dela Rosa addressed the crowd. "I hope you'll support the drug war. President Rodrigo Duterte has no other intention than to cleanse the Philippines," he exclaimed, as the crowd erupted, chanting, "Duterte! Duterte! Duterte!"
Filipino senator Leila de Lima has been one of the only voices publicly challenging the president. When Duterte was mayor of Davao City, de Lima, who was then the secretary of justice, publicly criticized and investigated him for his alleged use of death squads. On the same day Duterte took the presidency, de Lima was elected as a senator, and 13 days later, she introduced a Senate resolution to investigate the already rampant extrajudicial killings. As a result, just two months after taking office, Duterte ousted her as the chairperson of the Senate's Justice and Human Rights Commission. In front of the media, he told her to hang herself.
Of Duterte's successful messaging campaigns, Senator de Lima said, "This is all about propaganda. They are good at that. At mind conditioning, shaping, influencing the minds of the people, making them accept what is ordinarily not acceptable."
During our interview, her phone rang, and looking down at the unknown number, she told me, "I have been getting a lot of hate messages, hate callers, and also death threats ever since the House of Representatives and its probe publicized my phone numbers and even my home address." Duterte has been relentless in attacking de Lima. He recently claimed she was running a drug operation and slapped her with related charges. During our interview, she said she knows the reality is that Duterte could effectively silence her, either by death or arrest. "Well, they've been saying that they're going to destroy me within the year," she told me. "So I tell them, if I have to go down, I have to go down fighting."
On February 23, one month after I interviewed Senator de Lima, she was arrested on drug-trafficking charges and has been in prison since. With the strongest voice of dissent behind bars, and the campaign to slaughter thousands of people in full effect, there has never been a more important time to be a journalist in the Philippines.
Aie Balagtas See is a local crime reporter in Manila, investigating the murders called in each night between 10 PM and 5 AM. Strangely, the press office is located inside the police station. Written on one wall is the phrase go spread the word tell the passers-by that in this little world men knew how to die. The Manila Police Department badge under it indicates that it's an official slogan.
In January, I followed Balagtas See on the night-crawler shift. When calls started coming in, reporters ran to their pickup trucks to race to the scene of a shooting. The drivers flew through red lights, cutting off massive trucks, knowing that if they didn't arrive within 30 or so minutes, the police would remove the bodies and evidence, leaving the reporters with little to investigate.
When we arrived at one crime scene, the police had already taped it off, and the body was about 50 feet away. The police spokesman addressed the reporters, explaining that the deceased man was an armed drug dealer who shot at the officers before they killed him. The local reporters told me this was what they call the "template narrative," suggesting the police use a stock story at each crime scene. Reporters couldn't get close to the body, so they couldn't corroborate the police statement, but there was a gun next to the victim's hand. After a few minutes, a photographer whispered to Balagtas See about witnesses around the corner whose backyards face the crime scene. The witnesses told her that before the detectives showed up, there was no gun next to the victim's hand. After the police swarmed the body, a gun appeared. The witnesses had before and after pictures—first the body without a gun, then the body with a gun—that were clear enough that Human Rights Watch published this case in its report on extrajudicial killings in March. But in the end, Balagtas See chose not to publish what the witnesses alleged; she didn't think the images were clear enough.
"I have tremendous respect for Philippine journalists. The reason why they are self-censoring is because they're afraid for their lives… They don't want to be the next victim," Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, later told me. He continued, "When the president says, 'Just because you are a journalist, that doesn't protect you from being assassinated,' he means it."
For the most part, Balagtas See said she doesn't fear for her life, but she understands the threat and believes the risk is worth it. "Right now, we are daily historians," she told me. "As historians, you're a mirror. You put that mirror to the society's face and tell them, 'Hey, this is what's happening in your country, do you like it? And if you don't, what are we going to do about it?'"
Threats toward the press in any country aren't always as blatant as assassination. In the US, President Trump has harassed individual journalists in public and private, called the press the "enemy," and blocked reputable news organizations from attending pressers—mild acts of intimidation. After he tweeted that "fake news" media—in which he counts the "failing" New York Times, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and CNN—are the enemy of the American people, Senator John McCain said, "If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press, and without it, I'm afraid we'd lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started."
The US has always been a gold standard in journalism, and press-freedom advocates in oppressive countries have used it to put pressure on their leaders. In many cases, their leaders have changed as a result. Without the US as an example to look to, the situation for local reporters around the world will likely worsen.
Two months after I left the Philippines, unidentified gunmen on motorcycles murdered Joaquin Briones, a newspaper columnist. The Presidential Task Force on Media Security is investigating and has said it presumes the killing is work related. So far, no one has been charged. And according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, only two perpetrators of violence against journalists have been convicted in the history of the Philippines.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a global advocate for press freedom, responded, saying, "We strongly condemn the brazen murder of Joaquin Briones and call on authorities to identify and bring all those responsible to swift justice. President Rodrigo Duterte must send a clear signal that his administration will not condone the murder of journalists."
"A democratic society needs a free press in order to function," Balagtas See had told me when we met. "If you don't have an independent body—I would like to believe that journalists are the independent body checking government—how would the people know what is really happening behind closed doors?"
Gianna Toboni is a correspondent and producer for HBO's Emmy-winning news magazine series VICE, which airs Fridays at 11 PM. Catch the premiere of VICE's "Controlling the Narrative" on HBO later this summer. Alyse Walsh, Rica Concepcion, Emma Moley, and Hendrik Hinzel contributed reporting to this story.