In his piece entitled “Stealth Authoritarianism”, Ozan Vogel defines stealth authoritarianism as when the president or executive uses legal mechanisms that exist in stable democracy for anti-democratic purposes. Vogel describes several instances of stealth authoritarianism in the real world, but I want to look at the case of the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s attacks on the press as an example of how these mechanisms can be used in conjunction with each other to achieve undemocratic aims. In this post, I’ll specifically be looking at how President Duterte was able to successfully persecute Maria Ressa, one of his most prominent critics in the media, by bending legal mechanisms in his favor. President Duterte’s bending of legal mechanisms in order to attack the media is a good representation of the stealth authoritarianism that Vogel describes which shows how President Duterte is eroding democracy in the Philippines. Duterte’s attacks against the media can be applied to a majority of the six mechanisms of stealth authoritarianism which also shows how the mechanisms are often used together in order to achieve antidemocratic aims, not in isolation from each other.
Maria Ressa is a prominent journalist who co-founded Rappler, one of the more popular news sites in the Philippines, and recently won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her efforts in promoting free expression in the Phillippines. Ressa and the Rappler have been a constant critic of President Duterte and his anti-drug campaigns. Rappler often publishes articles that investigate his anti-drug campaigns and the extrajudicial campaigns which seek to kill those who are suspected of dealing or using drugs as well as other undemocratic actions undertaken by Duterte and his government.
Duterte’s verbal attacks on the media
Duterte has spoken out against the media and Rappler in specific by spouting theories of a mass conspiracy called the Matrix to “Oust Duterte” and his government. Duterte has also encouraged violence against journalists and even said that he considered Ressa “every inch a prostitute.” As a result of Duterte’s inflammatory rhetoric against the media and Rappler, Ressa has been the target of various threats online including rape and death threats. Duterte’s relentless attacks on the media are an effort to discredit sources of dissent against his government’s actions, particularly his anti-drug campaign.
Non-Political Crimes, Libel Lawsuits, and Judicial Review
In June of 2020, Maria Ressa and one of her colleagues at Rappler, Reynaldo Santos Jr, were both found guilty of cyber-libel, a new law that came into effect in September 2012. Both Ressa and Santos Jr are currently out on bail but they could face up to six years in prison and were fined $8,000. The article that was found to be cyber-libel was published earlier that year in May 2012. The article alleged that businessman Wilfredo Keng had links to drug and human trafficking and that he had possibly bribed a judge by lending the judge his car. This prompted Keng to sue her under the cyber-libel law. The prosecutors, in this case, justified the fact that this article could be tried under a law that only came into effect after the article was published because the article was later edited in 2014 to correct a typo. The prosecutor argued that this constituted a republishing of the article, which the judge for this case, Rainelda Montea, agreed with. Though President Duterte wasn’t the person who sued Ressa for cyber-libel, Ressa argued several times that this case was one of several cases of harassment through the courts that Rappler has had to endure over the past several years. In addition to this cyber-libel case, Rappler has also faced seven other charges including tax evasion as well as one other case of cyber-libel which was ultimately thrown out. Ressa claims that these cases represent President Duterte’s efforts to delegitimize Rappler and other news sources that criticize him. Ressa is not a political opponent to Duterte as she has not expressed any political aspirations, yet Duterte has clearly sought to prosecute Rappler and her for common non-political crimes like tax evasion. In addition, Duterte’s increasing control over the judiciary has enabled libel lawsuits that rely on the idea that correcting a typo is the same as republishing the article to reach convictions. Prosecuting opponents for non-political crimes, controlling the judiciary, and using libel lawsuits to silence journalists are all components of Vogel’s stealth authoritarianism.
Bolstering Domestic and Global Legitimacy
The case of Maria Ressa and Rappler is only one of the media sources in the Philippines that criticize and dissent against President Duterte and also only one of the media sources that regularly receive attacks from him. President Duterte’s rhetoric and actions clearly show that he is actively trying to limit free expression and the free press in his country in order to consolidate his power. Even though his disdain of the media is clear for many to see Duterte still attempts to appear as if he supports free speech by pointing out that he himself has never attempted to sue a journalist for libel “despite his negative appointing.” This is yet another component of stealth authoritarianism because Duterte is trying to appear democratic even as he is undertaking antidemocratic actions. Yet as much as President Duterte may claim to be a democratic leader, just by looking at one part of his presidency, we can see how he fits many of the criteria of a stealth authoritarian set out by Vogel. It may be considered normal democratic processes if an executive utilizes one or two of the mechanisms that Vogel has set out, but utilizing four of the six mechanisms in an overall effort to attack journalists is almost a sure sign of authoritarianism.