Rodrigo Duterte vs. the World: What the Media Thinks of ‘The Punisher’

Known as ‘The Punisher’, Rodrigo Duterte – current President of the Philippines – is quite the colourful character to say the least. Following his election as President on 10th May this year, Duterte has garnered attention from international media outlets for his inflammatory comments and his controversial campaign against illegal drugs.

Human rights groups have previously expressed grave concerns about his connections with vigilante “death squads” and role in issuing extrajudicial killings during the 22 years he spent as Davao’s mayor to lower the city’s crime rates. Within his first week as President, Duterte publicly called for large-scale extrajudicial killings as part of his campaign against illegal drugs, putting himself under international media scrutiny in the process.

International media outlets have been accused for being biased against Duterte, particularly in their coverage of Duterte in relation to his drug crackdown. Here in Australia, the TV documentary ‘Licensed to Kill’ from 60 Minutes has been slammed by netizens for portraying Duterte as a ‘trigger happy human rights abuser’. On both occasions, it has been pointed out that international news outlets lack the context needed to understand the severity of Philippines’ drug problem, the value in Duterte’s approach, and therefore the appeal of Duterte himself. This argument can also be found in the comments section of articles about Duterte in both international and Philippine media:

Duterte supporters are quick to challenge media depictions of Duterte in relation to his crackdown on illegal drugs.

In order to investigate this claim, headlines, hard-news articles, and editorial cartoons published by international and Philippine news outlets will be analysed in terms of how they portray Duterte, and taking into account the different contexts and worldviews that underpin each representation.

A quick look at some international news headlines relating to Duterte published during 2016 show that their depictions of the President  remain fairly consistent over time:

  • Marcos set for return to power riding ‘The Punisher’ Duterte’ – The Australian, 7 May 2016
  • ‘The Punisher’ leads polls in Philippines votes’ – Reuters, 9 May 2016
  • ‘Philippines election: ‘Dictator-in-waiting’ Rodrigo Duterte secures huge victory’ – SMH, 10 May 2016
  • Ruthless Punisher puts blood on streets’ – The Daily Telegraph, 29 July 2016
  • ‘Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte revives memories of ex-dictator Marcos’ – The Wall Street Journal, 2 September 2016
  • The Punisher’ is popular: Bloodthirsty Philippines President Duterte boasts support of 84% of citizens as he bans smoking and death squads slaughter drug users in the streets’ – Daily Mail Australia, 13 October 2016

There appears to be a general trend in identifying Duterte as ‘The Punisher’, with the epithet usually coming before his name, and in some cases, replacing his name entirely, as if they were interchangeable. This reflects how the concept of Duterte as ‘The Punisher’ is central to how he is portrayed on international media. The frequency that ‘The Punisher’ appears alongside Duterte’s name in these headlines reflects the large extent to which his reputation as such influences the way international media outlets portray him.

Identifying Duterte as ‘The Punisher’ evokes an attitudinal assessment under which he is viewed as extreme, violent, and draconian, which largely informs the way he is portrayed across multiple headlines as shown above. The representational disposition of headlines referring to Duterte as ‘The Punisher’ works towards positioning audiences to view him negatively, and to favour the viewpoint that he is ill-suited to lead the Philippines, and poses a greater threat to the country than illegal drugs.

Headlines from international new outlets use ‘The Punisher’ in combination with other lexical items to evoke a negative response from audiences. The headline ‘Ruthless Punisher puts blood on streets’ overtly characterises Duterte as ‘ruthless’ and uses a metaphor of blood-splattered streets to suggest that Duterte has no qualms about hurting and killing others.

This is reinforced through the headline’s sentence structure, which assigns Duterte with an agentive role while deleting the affected, giving the impression that he doesn’t discriminate between criminal and civilian – so long as someone’s blood is shed. Using the terms ‘bloodthirsty’ and ‘slaughter’ also depicts Duterte in a negative light, as it positions his desire to curb drug-related crimes as secondary to the pleasure he finds in killing others as if they were animals.

Another emerging trend found in international news headlines was the depiction of Duterte as a budding dictator. This is shown through the use of overtly attitudinal inscription “dictator-in-waiting” and “strongman”, a term that is used interchangeably with dictator in Western contexts. The headline ‘Marcos set for return to power riding ‘The Punisher’ Duterte’ implicitly draws parallels between Duterte and the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose reign was marred by widespread corruption, economic stagnation, and widening socioeconomic inequalities. By suggesting that Duterte is a suitable ‘vessel’ for Marcos to resume his post, audiences are made to negatively assess Duterte due to his association with Marcos. This negative evaluation of Duterte is reinforced through the inclusion of ‘The Punisher’ in the headline, due to its associations with excessive violence and force.

In contrast, news headlines relating to Duterte from the Philippines released throughout 2016 adopt a relatively more objective tone and display a wider range of attitudes towards Duterte:

  • ‘Miriam: Duterte a very dangerous candidate’ – The Philippine Star, 7 May 2016
  • ‘Duterte also trains guns at millionaires’ – The Manila Times, 9 August 2016
  • ‘Duterte slams De Lima’ – Philippine Daily Inquirer, 18 August 2016
  • ‘Lagman likens Duterte to Marcos in firing appointed officials’ –, 24 August 2016
  • ‘Duterte continues attacks, tells Obama to go to hell’ – The Manila Times, 5 October 2015
  • ‘Duterte seeks ‘everybody’s help’ in destroying 10,000 drug networks’ –, 25 October 2016

Unlike international news, Duterte’s name is not embellished with the epithet ‘The Punisher’ in Philippine headlines. This reflects how Duterte’s reputation as ‘The Punisher’ is not central to the Philippine media’s portrayal of the current president. It is also worth noting that headlines that either draw parallels between Duterte and Marcos is attributed to politicians who made the comparison, instead of being presented as an attribute that readers should take for granted, as seen with the international news headlines.

In direct contrast to international news headlines on Duterte, Philippines news headlines leave its attitudinal positioning somewhat more open, depending on the event they are reporting. So while Duterte is positioned as the active agent in almost all the headlines, different choices in verbs help soften the effect of Duterte’s actions and change the tone of the story.

For instance, Duterte is said to “slam” his political opponent De Lima rather than “attacking”, and “seeks” the general public’s assistance rather than “urging” them. This specific choice of words sets a more objective tone, which in turn depicts Duterte as less forward and aggressive. However, action phrases such as “trains guns” and “continues attacks” use terms associated with aggressive military action and indicate a target for Duterte to act upon, thus presenting him as audacious, confrontational, and dominating.

Unlike the international news headlines, which show trends that converge and guide audiences to evaluate Duterte negatively overall, audiences exposed to Philippine media are not positioned to make a clear-cut evaluation of Duterte. Instead, they are given various depictions of Duterte and are encouraged to piece together a multifaceted representation of the politician.

To support the initial conclusions founded from comparing international and Philippine headlines, hard new articles and editorial cartoons will be analysed in further depth. First, let’s take a look at the hard-news article, ‘Philippines election: ‘Dictator-in-waiting’ Rodrigo Duterte secures huge victory’, by Lindsay Murdoch published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 10th May 2016. The article opens with,

“A foul-mouthed, anti-establishment outsider has been elected president of the Philippines in an extraordinary political upset that will return the island-nation to authoritarian rule 30 years after a popular uprising ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.”

Murdoch attributes the Philippines’ return to a dictatorship to Duterte’s expletive-laden speech and anti-establishment rhetoric without argumentative support, indicating a negative evaluation of Duterte. Here, the word ‘extraordinary’ is used to duplicate the evaluative meaning conveyed by the phrase ‘political upset’, which describes the overturning of expectations when the underdog beats the popular or veteran candidates in an election. In doing this, Duterte’s success is characterised as especially unexpected, which positions audiences to believe that his abilities as mediocre or below average, and to attribute his success to external factors.

“Rodrigo Duterte, the 71-year-old mayor of the southern city of Davao, told supporters he accepted their mandate with “extreme humility” after crushing four rivals in a landslide victory.”

The use of quotation marks around the phrase ‘extreme humility’ indicate that Duterte wasn’t sincere with his supporters, and was anything but humbled by the election results. In fact, the disjoint between Duterte accepting his victory with ‘extreme humility’ and him ‘crushing’ his political opponents suggests that Duterte is arrogant, and is not tactful enough not to rub his success in their faces.

“Mr Duterte won almost 40 per cent of votes cast after an acrimonious campaign dominated by his profanity-laced vows to kill criminals.”

The use of the words ‘acrimonious’ and ‘profanity-laced’ when describing Duterte’s campaign implies that Duterte is driven by strong emotion, and whose solutions to which he expects to be enough to carry out his campaign’s objectives. However, this is depicted as naïve when Duterte is placed within the context of foreign affairs, as he would be expected to do as President.

“The victory has rattled powerful dynastic families who have ruled the country for decades and alarmed diplomats who fear the foreign policy novice could upend diplomatic efforts to ease tensions over China’s aggressive claim to the South China Sea.”

Here, Murdoch explicitly states that Duterte is inexperienced, and will only cause trouble for the Philippines in the long run. The use of the words “rattled” and “alarmed” indicate government officials and political dynasties – who are positioned as respectable and experienced by mentioning time – view Duterte as a liability. Murdoch employs an appeal to negative consequence to cast Duterte in an unfavourable light by implying that his involvement in foreign relations will only worsen tensions with China and undermine Philippines’ credibility in international affairs. In summary, this article directs audiences to view Duterte negatively, under which he is well out of his depth and ill-prepared to fulfil his responsibilities as President properly.

Understanding Philippines’ political context largely influences how Duterte is portrayed in media. This is especially the case with the editorial cartoon ‘Duterte’s Accomplishments vs. Holy Trapos by Manuel Francisco, which was published in The Manila Times on 2nd December 2015 – back when Duterte was working at Davao. This cartoon positions Duterte as a antithesis to a trapo, a term for ‘traditional politicians’, members of powerful political families that form a national oligarchy in Philippine politics – in terms of affability and competence.

Pick your choice: a sheep in wolves’ clothing or a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Credits: Manuel Francisco/The Manila Times
Pick your choice: a sheep in wolves’ clothing or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Credits: Manuel Francisco/The Manila Times

The warrant of this editorial cartoon is that actions speak louder than words. On the surface level, ‘traditional politicians’ appear harmless despite being depicted as a crocodile due to its open body language and religious zeal. Meanwhile, Duterte appears intimidating due to his closed body language and extensive use of expletives in everyday speech. However, upon closer scrutiny, it is revealed that the crocodile is spewing religious rhetoric in an attempt to draw attention away from its stash of money, reflecting a personal agenda.

In contrast, Duterte is shown to be an active and accomplished politician irrespective of his expletive-laden speech, which is evident from the stand displaying a list of his achievements behind him. This positions audiences to evaluate Duterte positively despite his intimidating demeanour; unlike trapos, Duterte is shown to be competent in his job, and maintains professional and ethical standards.

For this cartoon to make sense, audiences must attest to the underlying assumption that all trapos are corrupt, power-hungry, and opportunistic, with no clear plan or direction to tackle socioeconomic issues and initiate change. Public attitudes towards ‘traditional politicians’ in the Philippines are predominantly negative, reflecting a wider trend of political disaffection and distrust in the government. This is understandable, considering that Philippine politics is characterised by powerful oligarchies, a weak institution, and systemic patronage.

Bearing this in mind, one could argue that in portraying Duterte as the better alternative to ‘traditional politicians’, Francisco is directing audiences towards a positive attitudinal assessment of Duterte as a non-traditional or ‘anti-establishment’ politician. This contrasts with Murdoch’s article, which evokes a negative evaluation of Duterte on the lines that his anti-establishment views are similar to Trump’s. The opposing attitudinal positions conveyed by media outlets regarding Duterte’s anti-establishment rhetoric demonstrates how differing levels of understanding Philippines’ political context influences the media’s portrayal of Duterte.

Now let’s take a look at Heng Kim Song’s editorial cartoon on Duterte and his campaign against illegal drugs, published in The New York Times on 21st August 2016 – just over 50 days since Duterte assumed presidency on 30th June. In this cartoon, Duterte is shown shouldering a missile launcher and taking aim at the rotten apple – emblematic of anyone suspected of being involved in the illegal drug trade – placed on the head of a man representing the Philippines.

Use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and a missile launcher to shoot a bad apple. Credits: Hung/The New York Times
Use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and a missile launcher to shoot a bad apple.
Credits: Hung/The New York Times

Heng encodes his negative evaluation of Duterte by alluding to the adage “Use a sledgehammer to crack a nut”. By making a missile launcher Duterte’s weapon of choice to shoot an apple, Duterte is implicitly shown as extreme and unnecessary violent for using disproportionate force and expense to accomplish the task at hand. In doing this, the audience is positioned to question Duterte’s leadership and decision-making capabilities.

There is also this: shooting a missile at anyone at point-blank range will result in his or her death no matter how careful the wielder is. This evokes the adage “The operation was successful, but the patient was dead”, under which Duterte believes that ensuring the destruction of the illegal drug trade is worth putting the civilian population at risk of being killed by accident. This in turn evokes negativity towards Duterte, as the warrant of this editorial cartoon is that the government have the responsibility to protect the public from situations that may cause them harm. Audiences are positioned to view Duterte to be negligent in this respect, opting to focus on ‘destroying’ the rotten apples residing in the Philippines, and thus causing many deaths that could otherwise been avoided.

The cartoon also creates a narrative where the Philippines is at the mercy of Duterte, who is seen as a grave threat to people’s lives and to Filipino society at large. This is demonstrated by how the man with the apple – representative of the Philippines – is visibly scared, but unable to escape Duterte’s aim. This depiction of Duterte is reinforced by the cartoon’s caption, which says,

More than 800 people have been killed since the May election of Rodrigo Duterte, who has repeatedly called for killing drug dealers and users.

The caption’s sentence structure attributes the high number of deaths since the May election to Duterte, rather than the Filipino police who shot alleged suspects and drug smugglers. This positions the audience to regard Duterte negatively, which is further augmented by the inclusion of the adverb “repeatedly” as it indicates that Duterte doesn’t care about how his actions are affecting the civilian population.

Last of all, let us take a look at the hard news article ‘Filipinos seen backing Duterte despite rising drug killings’ by Teresa Cerejano from The Philippine Star, published on 27th August. The article evokes a negative assessment of Duterte’s crackdown on illegal drugs using factual content regarding the body count:

“Two months later, nearly 2,000 suspected drug pushers and users lay dead as morgues continue to fill up.” 

“…Duterte has stuck to his guns and threatened to declare martial law if the Supreme Court meddles in his work.”

Here, the mention of the words ‘threatened’ and ‘meddle’ in relation to Duterte’s conflict with the Supreme Court suggests that Duterte may be developing a overly controlling attitude towards how his campaign is handled, and is overly sensitive to criticism – both of which are indicators of dictator-like behaviour.

However, within the context of the Philippines’ traditional, oligarchic political system, any action is better than no action, and that is precisely what Duterte offers to the general public. Ultimately, Duterte is depicted as a pro-poor President who shares the same frustrations as the people living in the country he is serving, and whose straightforward, confronting approach to certain issues is considered refreshing:

“Duterte’s death threats against criminals, his promise to battle corruption, his anti-establishment rhetoric and gutter humour have enamoured Filipinos living on the margins of society. He overwhelmingly won the election, mirroring public exasperation over the social ills he condemns.”

On the whole, it seems like media depictions of Duterte vary depending on where you are getting your content. International media consistently depict Duterte like his namesake ‘The Punisher’ or as a budding dictator a la Ferdinand Marcos, while Philippine media shifts away from any sensationalised media representations of Duterte and simply focus on what and how he plans on leading the country. This reflects the priorities of each region, with the Philippines media being more grounded with their portrayal of Duterte. By comparing and analysing media coverage relating to Duterte released from international and Philippine news outlets through 2016, we have been able to gain a better insight into how different contexts and modes of understanding Philippines’ political landscape play a role in shaping media representations of controversial figures.


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