Fighting Threats to Philippine Democracy, with Joy Aceron

March 9, 2018

Protest against the Philippine drug war at Philippine Consulate General, New York City, October 2016. CREDIT: VOCAL-NY (CC)

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Joy Aceron of G-Watch and Accountability Research Center in Manila, the Philippines.

Joy, great to have you here.

JOY ACERON: Good afternoon. Thank you for having me, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: You have traveled from Manila to New York City to participate in some conferences. Tell me about your organizations, G-Watch and the research center.

JOY ACERON: G-Watch, Government Watch, was formerly a social accountability program of a university. It was founded in 2000 to address the issues of corruption. Now it is rebooting to an action-research organization as an independent organization in the Philippines that is embedded in civic and advocacy organizations all over the country. We are present in about 11 localities in the Philippines, and our members are coming from different sectors in different localities.

Accountability Research Center is our partner research center that is based in the School of International Service in American University, so basically they are supporting us in producing knowledge products that study strategies and specific undertakings on transparency, participation, and accountability.

DEVIN STEWART: Under President Duterte would you say that civic engagement, tackling corruption, and the state of accountability—are these things getting better or worse under the current president?

JOY ACERON: To answer that it might be good to go back to the previous administration. The previous administration won under the platform of good governance. Many initiatives in open government actually were started in the previous administration.

We were founding members of the Open Government Partnership that was actually spearheaded by President Obama then. You could say that in the previous administration transparency, participation, and accountability were really the central strategy of its effort toward development and democratization.

This new government's focus is on drugs, fighting drugs, peace, and order. I would say that it remains involved in some open government, anti-corruption efforts, but not as much as before, and according to the new Transparency International study, where our rating actually went down, it seemed like—

DEVIN STEWART: From this year?

JOY ACERON: Yes, this year. That anti-corruption effort is very superficial, that is part of their analysis, so they do not consider it as something that is making a dent on fighting corruption, and it seemed to be like just giving a façade of a fight against corruption.

The Philippines remains in the Open Government Partnership under the Department of Budget and Management, but the efforts on open government are going side-by-side with issues of human rights violations, with issues of use of violence, and this threat of use of authoritarian and dictatorial means. These are the contradictions that you are seeing in the country at the moment.

DEVIN STEWART: It doesn't sound like a contradiction because it sounds like corruption is getting worse and civil liberties are also getting worse. Where is the contradiction?

JOY ACERON: I think it is good to still recognize that there are segments of the government that are trying to continue the open government efforts of the past. I know these people, and I have worked with some of them, and I know that there is sincerity there even if, say, that is not really the priority, strategy, and platform of the government, and that what the administration and the political leadership are doing is probably undermining what they are doing in the bureaucracy.

DEVIN STEWART: Which part of the government is on your side, would you say?

JOY ACERON: There are departments that are serious about their effort to continue to open government. I think I should recognize the Department of Budget and Management continuing its effort in Open Government Partnership, some programs that we are monitoring in G-Watch.

We have not yet concluded our study, but we are seeing that those citizen engagement and open government standards that were initiated before are still being continued by career bureaucrats who have been there, so you could say that there is really an effort at least within the government and the bureaucracy, even in local governments, to maintain the kind of practices that were initiated in the previous administration. But as I said, it comes alongside this big issue of human rights violations, it comes with issues of press freedom.

That is why I would consider it as a contradiction because I cannot also deny that there are these existing efforts. How effective they are, I think it is a challenge, especially now, because obviously in a democratic setting these kinds of contradictions could boil down to ultimately not being able to advance the kind of substantive rights and most basic rights that are most important. So I can imagine that the contradictions are probably also undermining the little efforts that are toward open government and transparency.

DEVIN STEWART: It's a question about whether you can have a transparent government when your press is not necessarily exactly free.

JOY ACERON: That's right.

DEVIN STEWART: So that's always a problem.

You mentioned freedom of the press as an issue that concerns you. What's the state of affairs there? What's going on with the press? Because it seems like there's a lot of press in the Philippines, many organizations, a lot of people trying to cover the news. Are they free to cover the news?

JOY ACERON: You must have seen the news. There are some news outfits that are being banned from covering Malacañang and the president's activities; this is Rappler. Obviously, they are also being harassed with their registration being questioned. These are threats to press freedom, obviously. You could say, if you look at the Philippines—

DEVIN STEWART: But Rappler still exists, right?

JOY ACERON: Yes. You could say that media could still release whatever they would want. It is not also right to say that there is no freedom of the press, but there is an apparent threat to press freedom.

The bigger problem is how effective the machinery of the government is in propagating fake news and really undermining also the mainstream media that are providing right information that are trying to hold the government to account. That is the bigger threat. The media can produce anything they want and can criticize the government. The government would threaten them the same way they are doing with Rappler, but I think the bigger challenge we have yet to grapple with as a society is how to deal with the propagation of falsehood and fake information that is coming out and becoming truthful even if it is not.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. I have seen studies about the emergence of fake news in the Philippines, and we are certainly not a novice to that in America.

Let's get to that in a second, but before we do, when a place like Rappler is threatened, what is the implied threat? What is the government telling it it is going to do? Is it just, "Stop doing that or else we'll shut you down" or "We'll throw you in jail," or what?

JOY ACERON: It is valid to be alarmed by what is happening in the Philippines. If you look at threats to press freedom, you look at the constitutional change attempt that is threatening to remove accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in the constitution, the threat of martial law being declared in the entire country because Mindanao, the big island region in the Philippines, is actually under martial law now. They are using terrorism as a justification, though there is no clear evidence that the entire island region is actually confronting the issue of terrorism. Despite that, they are still able to successfully declare martial law in that part of the country.

There are opposition leaders—Leila de Lima, who was the first one who actually spoke up against the president, a senator, is now in jail. Actually, the existing propaganda machinery attacks anyone who would speak against the president. It may not necessarily be formal state mechanisms that are attacking the opposition, from very prominent opposition leaders down to the kind of civil society leaders; it is not necessarily formal mechanisms, but their propaganda machine is so effective that it is able to create that environment of threat and that environment of that kind of feeling of repression in the country. So there is a reason for us to be alarmed by this seeming pattern of counter-pushback on accountability and freedom.

DEVIN STEWART: It is basically smearing the opposition.

JOY ACERON: They are very effective. They could really find valid criticisms that they could blow out of proportion.

For example, this Dengvaxia vaccine got approved in the previous administration. They are using this as some sort of a way to totally discredit whatever calls for human rights made by the opposition just because the vaccine, they say, could potentially have killed or could have potentially put into danger kids who used the vaccine. So it is a very good propaganda tool to control the narrative of who is the good guy and the bad guy in this partisan squabble.

DEVIN STEWART: Is this a direct style of Duterte to use propaganda and fake news? Do people attribute it to his governing style? Is it coming from him personally, or is it just sort of his people?

JOY ACERON: If you look at the experience of Davao, where he was a mayor for decades, the use of propaganda was very effective to the extent that it was able to control the entire narrative of what was really happening in Davao. That was central. I think in any—

DEVIN STEWART: Can you tell our listeners what you are referring to when you say "what happened in Davao"?

JOY ACERON: In Davao there were countless human rights violations. Many alleged drug addicts, drug dealers, alleged petty criminals were killed. A lot of international organizations and even national and local human rights organizations have investigated this, and there are facts about these cases. These cases did not prevent him from being president of the Philippines, so you can see it also did not put any doubt on the support of the people of Davao.

I would say that a big part of that is how effective they are in making use of their propaganda machinery in controlling the narrative and repressing opposition and other views. What is the magic there really? Is it not really relying on state and formal mechanisms but really relying on the kind of seemingly popular sentiment, like common people speaking up for him and not the mainstream traditional kind of opinion-makers but really viewed as common people, so people could relate to them. There are actually mouthpieces of the administration who are like that, who are very effective in making people convinced of what sort of effort this government is doing. They are very good at it.

DEVIN STEWART: That is interesting. What's the medium or the platform for getting the message out? Because Americans think fake news, we think of fake news websites and maybe Russian trolls on Twitter or Facebook telling us to go check this fake news out, or maybe smear campaigns that have been leaked into the press. What is the means of delivery of the message in the Philippines?

JOY ACERON: I was in a class at New York University, and they asked me what seems to be the new factor in this political development, and I would say really that social media has become a big factor that has drastically changed the kind of dynamics of political players in the Philippines. For the administration, the government, they have been very effective in terms of making use of it to their advantage.

Duterte, largely his campaign, if you look at it, he made extensive use of social media. The term "fake news" actually is being questioned now, whether there is such a thing as fake news. Sometimes I use "falsehoods" for lack of a better term.

DEVIN STEWART: People in the Philippines are questioning that phrase, or you just mean globally?

JOY ACERON: Yes. It is good to say. In conversations I had, some are saying that it actually is very disadvantageous for news, for legitimate media to accept that there is such a thing as fake news. In terms of discourse and language, it may not actually be empowering or advantageous for the advocates of news, of truthful news, to be accepting that there is such a thing as fake news.

Going back to the medium, there is that problem of effectiveness on their part to make use of the new platform right now online. But not only that, it is really online/offline. It is a combination of that because this propaganda machinery is actually also going around the country, going to the communities.

For example, their proposed charter change, they are proposing a shift to federalism. These are going around the country as they are conducting community assemblies, informing the people about this.

What is the content? We are receiving news that the content is problematic in terms of whether it is truly federalism or if they are really providing information that would allow citizens to critically discern whether this is a good option for the country. These are concerns because obviously they are going around, they are saying that they are giving information about federalism, but apparently it is not the kind of information that would allow informed decisions by the citizens, but they are effective in using both offline and online in pushing their agenda.

DEVIN STEWART: My experience with the Philippines, I think of it as a very vibrant civil society. It has a lot of public debate. People are engaged with politics. Where are things going in regard to Philippine civil society, free press, and public engagement?

JOY ACERON: Last February 14, my organization G-Watch had simultaneous events all over the country. We had a convening of civil society organizations in Manila, and there is a sense and recognition that civil society, though vibrant, as viewed internationally and also if you look at the history of the country, civil society now is generally weak or weakened in terms of protecting some of the progressive gains.

I think it is about time to recognize that, given the fact that despite the country looking at 13,000 poor people dead, this president still has a 70-plus percent approval rating.

DEVIN STEWART: You're talking about the drug war.

JOY ACERON: Yes, I'm talking about the drug war, 13,000 at least, poor people, and yet we still have 70 percent, 80 percent of the people approving of the president.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you explain that?

JOY ACERON: Exactly.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you explain it?

JOY ACERON: Which means your human rights constituency—we have been doing human rights education for the longest time, citizenship education for the longest time. As you said, we have a very vibrant civil society. When you talk about civil society, this is a democratizing force. It basically is premised on the idea that there is freedom, there are human rights, and there is democracy.

For us to actually see this kind of reaction from the very people who are actually the constituency of civil society, the very reason there is a constituency of the civil society is that they link supposedly the citizens to the government. They are the bridge. So they are closer to the people. Yet the values of civil society—human rights, freedom, democracy—not being translated signals that there is a disconnect along the way. Civil society or progressive democratic forces in the Philippines has lost its linkage and its hold to the people.

DEVIN STEWART: Why is that? I know elsewhere around the world the middle class does not really care about democratic institutions; it really cares about law and order and jobs and basic stability. Is that what's going on here? People have forgotten that old-fashioned democratic values are important?

JOY ACERON: First of all, it is also very important to point out that the constituency of Duterte has always been the upper and the middle classes, which means that this is not necessarily the poor people who have been victimized by whatever failures our system had for the past decades or centuries. It is also not correct, therefore, that this is a sentiment of rebellion against the kind of system that we have.

This is a constituency that is trying to avoid any progress or any effort to deepen democracy. Because this is the upper class and middle class. These are the constituencies that actually benefit from the flawed system that we have, and he has that control, although with the façade that he is actually addressing the disappointments of the people, of the masses. I think it is very important to point that out as a clear contradiction in our society.

I think one important point about what is happening here is that though we have had efforts toward deepening of democracy for a very long time, I would say that has continued. I have been working with a lot of activists, with a lot of advocates, and there has always been really that room for improving ourselves.

But the powers that be, the political elites, the dynasties, the likes of Duterte, who comes from a political dynasty and is actually from a privileged class even if he comes from the Southern [Philippines], these forces who want to keep the status quo of inequality in impunity. They actually are the ones who really just want to keep the system the way it is. This is, I would say, a counter-pushback to the kind of gains that they have achieved.

And when we were having a conversation last February 14, we were saying that whatever efforts we have been undertaking in terms of pushing and deepening the democratic space, it should continue because it is not the fault of that effort that we have this. This is actually already a counter-pushback to whatever gains we have.

Obviously that is not a linear pattern. It could go back and forth, but what has been started we must improve it and continue while addressing this, because the consolidation of forces of those who have means, of those who want to abuse and continue with impunity, we have not really grappled with them yet, the corrupt, the abusive. They continue to exist, and there is still that very strong monopoly of political and economic power in the Philippines.

Despite the vibrancy of civil society, political and economic power continues to be in the hands of very few people in the Philippines. In fact, there are statistics that would say that if you want to make one important policy decision, you only have to talk to about 40 people because that is where power is concentrated.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow.

JOY ACERON: That is also where money is concentrated, actually.

DEVIN STEWART: Sure. You are describing a phenomenon that is common all around the world. It is something I describe as "stasis." Some people say "entropy," but I do not think that is actually quite precise. I think it is more like stasis. What I mean by that is that the small groups of people who benefit most from the status quo will do everything they can to protect it and prevent anything from changing. Given that that happens everywhere, maybe the Philippines is not unique, but given what you know about the Philippines, what is next for the Philippines, and what is next for Philippine democracy?

JOY ACERON: I was very optimistic after our gathering on February 14. Despite the fact that there is a recognition that civil society has been weakened and there is this attack on basic human rights and democracy and yet people continue to be supportive of the political leadership, despite that, I think I can still see that passion and commitment to continue.

The idea that what we have been doing in terms of building democracy despite the limitations of the current system that we have, the idea that that should continue and that we must be better in doing that while grappling with this new consolidation of forces, a stasis of forces, I think it is a good strategy at this point for citizens and for civil society as well. We were saying that, though we recognize that this is going to be a very long fight. This is going to be a very long process for the country.

We do appreciate that this also serves as an opportunity, actually, for us to go back to basics and really understand what is happening. That is why in our organization the key element of our rebooting is really learning, understanding what is happening, how the different forces and power structures are influencing even the most basic citizen action. That is very important, I think, going back to the basics of again going to the grassroots, linking with the people, understanding where they are.

Even the question of language actually came up in the discussion. Maybe we need to think through what kind of language and what kind of medium can enable us to again reestablish that link with the people so that the pro-status quo, the political elites, will not be the ones winning their hearts and minds. It is about reclaiming that connection of people and linking them up as well with different solidarity efforts in the international, the same people who are actually facing the same problems.

Because I think this is not only the Philippines, this is an opportunity for the entire globe, for people to recognize. Because I have been going around different parts of the Global South through our center, and I am realizing that we are almost the same. Even in the class of John Gershman, one of the students from the Global South was saying, "You know, when you were describing your country, you were almost describing my country." I feel the same way. Every single time I hear people complaining about what is happening in their country, especially threats to democracy, it is almost the same.

So it seems like if we are able to build people-to-people solidarity and build that again with a more intensified fervor and maybe on new premises given the change of contexts, maybe we can go back to basics and rebuild democracy as it should be.

DEVIN STEWART: Joy Aceron is director-convener at G-Watch, which is Government Watch, and a research fellow at Accountability Research Center in Manila. Thanks so much for coming by.

JOY ACERON: Thank you for having me.

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