Why the Media Love ‘Digong’

He is comfortable around journalists, who are, in turn, easily fascinated by him.

By Germelina Lacorte
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DAVAO CITY — Just by looking at how media people swarm City Hall every time he is around, he is probably the city’s most covered mayor.

He attracts journalists without even trying, says Jon Joaquin, editor of the local paper Mindanao Daily Mirror, referring to Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, the city’s mayor for four terms now, going on five. “He’s someone who knows his way with people,” Joaquin says. “He uses harsh words on camera, using expletives in the presence of media, but his tone of voice changes when he talks to the poor.”

Duterte’s actions and his stance on issues — from his indignation over the hanging of Filipina maid Flor Contemplacion in the 1990s which led to his burning of the Singapore flag, to his penchant to give quick-fix solutions to problems of the poor — have a way of attracting attention. He is comfortable around journalists, who are, in turn, easily fascinated by him.

Recently, for instance, amid the national government’s raging battle with the Catholic Church over issues on birth control, Duterte gave out 5,000 pesos in cash to women and men who went through tubal ligation and vasectomy. As a result, people flocked to City Hall. The press lapped up the story but hardly mentioned the fact that most of those who lined up for surgery were largely poor and were more interested in the money than in family planning.

Last year, regardless of the national government’s austerity program because of the fiscal crisis, Duterte offered a month-long free Christmas dinner to the poor. The dinners cost the city government millions. More recently, he gave out truckloads of foodstuff to the city’s Muslims, who were celebrating the month of Ramadhan.

But are the Davao media too cozy with Duterte that they often fail to check the image he projects against reality? More to the point, do the people of Davao benefit from the love affair between Duterte and members of the press?

“There’s a perception that he’s more in touch with the people than the media, so that reporters take his words seriously,” Joaquin says.

Through the years, Duterte has cultivated an image as someone who is tough against criminals. He has manhandled crime suspects right in front of the cameras. Once, he read aloud in his TV program the names of suspected drug pushers, warning them to leave his city or risk death. The city has earned a reputation for the summary executions of suspected criminals, many of them children.

“I like him for the sound bite,” says Joey Dalumpines, a reporter for the local daily Mindanao Times, “But oftentimes, I had to check what he said against what really happened.”

After an SWS survey revealed the extent of corruption under his administration, for instance, Duterte called for a revamp at City Hall. “But the revamp,” Dalumpines says, “only covered casuals and ordinary employees. How about the top officials — do we hear anything about them?”

Dalumpines also points out that most of the alleged criminals who had been summarily killed were poor Davaoenos. “So, what happened to the big ones?” he asks.

Questions like these from journalists, however, are few and the stories that come out about Duterte rarely reflect such skepticism.

Although Duterte’s worst critic, the late Juan “Jun” Pala, was a mediaman, Davao journalists are generally fond of the mayor. “As long as you’re fair and square, and professional in writing about him, there’s no problem with Digong,” says photojournalist Rene Lumawag, using the nickname that journalists fondly call the mayor behind his back. Lumawag had known Duterte way back in the ‘80s, when Duterte was still a city fiscal and Lumawag was still a broadcaster.

“He’s a very kind person,” says newspaperman Roger Balanza, whose friendship with Duterte went on and off since 1988, when Duterte first ran for mayor. “He’s a person who knows how to look back where he came from, a person who does not easily forget.”

“I owe him so many things it’s no longer possible to repay him,” says Chito Herbolingo, a Bombo Radyo broadcaster. “Many times in the past, when my child got sick, he’d come to help,” Herbolingo says. “Once, he shouldered medical bills worth more than P40,000. He was always there to help.”

“He is generous,” says Elmer Kintanar, an anchorman at DXRA radio. “Unlike other politicians who can be very difficult, he hands out 5,000 to 10,000 pesos from his own pocket and give it to you without batting an eyelash.”

Photojournalist Edgar Arro of Mindanao Times compared Duterte with former mayor Benjamin de Guzman. “He understands and sympathizes with the media,” he says of Duterte. De Guzman, on the other hand, was often offensive against members of the press, Arro said.

“If you have problems, you can tell him,” says Bobby Agadulo, a former Bombo Radyo reporter who fondly remembers accompanying Duterte in a 1997 field visit to Matina and Bangkal. “It was raining and he ended up buying jackets for the media,” he says. “When I was short of money, I would tell him. He used to give me 300 pesos, 400 pesos, sometimes 1,000 pesos right out of his own pocket.”

Duterte is “fair and he does not curtail the media. As long as you attack him on the level of issues,” Agadulo adds.

But there had been times when Duterte had nothing but contempt toward some journalists. One of them was Roger Flaviano, then the publisher and editor of the weekly newspaper Weekly Forum, one of the earliest newspapers to earn Duterte’s ire during his early days as mayor.

Once, in the late ‘80s, Duterte slammed a gun on the table where Flaviano was having coffee with friends. The mayor challenged the journalist to a duel, but Flaviano ignored him. Flaviano had written a column critical of the mayor.

There was, of course, Pala, the worst of Duterte’s critics who used his radio program to attack the mayor practically non-stop. Pala was one of the very few that challenged Duterte’s policies and actions. Before his assassination in 2003, Pala had criticized Duterte for failing to capture big drug lords. (Pala’s death remains unsolved.)

Still, it has been a continuing love affair between Duterte and the press. Armed with cameras and tape recorders, reporters and broadcasters elbow their way to the mayors’ office, which is often jampacked with people who ask for help. Duterte would drone on and on about the issues of the day. Every now and then, a reporter butts in with a question that won’t irk the mayor most journalists love. Davaotoday.com/Posted by Bulatlat

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