PHILIPPINES President Rodrigo Duterte has mocked journalists present at his bilateral meeting with American counterpart Donald Trump as “spies”.
The comments were made as the two presidents posed for photos ahead of their closed-door meeting in Manila on Monday, on the sidelines of the 31st Asean Summit.
“We will be talking on matters of interest to both the Philippines and – with you around, guys, you’re the spies. Yes, you are. (Laughter.)” said Duterte, as quoted by the White House Press Office, after declining to answer questions from the media. “This is not a press statement.”
Trump – whose presidential campaign was defined by open hostility to the news media and labelling negative coverage of himself as “fake news” – laughed along with Duterte.
Trump laughs as Duterte shuts down questions.
You are the spies," Duterte says, referring to press.
“Hah, hah, hah," Trump laughs.
“You are," Duterte repeateds, per WH pool.
— Peter Alexander (@PeterAlexander) November 13, 2017
Trump has previously declared the media an “enemy of the American people”. Under his administration, the United States slipped from 41 to 43 on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index – lower than Slovenia, Burkina Faso and Uruguay.
During the meeting, Trump said the Asean conference had been “beautifully handled” by Duterte and that “we very much appreciate the great treatment you’ve given us.” On Sunday night, Duterte performed a love song during the gala dinner, reportedly at the request of Trump.
While the Philippines is ostensibly democratic, there have been longstanding concerns about freedom of the press – particularly the safety of journalists. Democracy watchdog Freedom House classifies the country’s media as only “partly free”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists recently ranked the Philippines number five on its annual Impunity Index, reflecting a high number of journalists who have been murdered without investigation or prosecution of their killers.
Some 42 journalists have been killed with “complete impunity” in the past decade, said the report. In August, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said that 177 media workers had been killed since 1986.
Duterte last year established the Presidential Task Force on Violations of the Right to Life, Liberty, and Security of the Members of the Media – a body focused on improving media freedom and the safety of journalists.
Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch has said there is “little evidence” of the body’s attempts to pursue those responsible for murdering media practitioners.
Like Trump, Duterte has routinely rhetorically attacked the media, noting shortly after his election in June 2016 that “just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination. Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.”
Numerous people have accused Duterte himself of ordering the murder of radio announcer Jun Pala in 2003 when he was the mayor of Davao City. While he has denied connection to the assassination, Duterte has said Pala was killed because he was a “rotten son of a bitch.”
A joint statement from the US and Philippines governments on Monday said that “the two sides underscored that human rights and the dignity of human life are essential” and supposedly agreed to “continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda in their national programs”.
Both sides agreed that “illegal drug use is a problem afflicting both countries” and committed to “share best practices” in prevention, enforcement and rehabilitation. A spokesman for the Philippines government later noted that the two leaders “really hit it off”.
Philippines presidential spokesman Harry Roque said that human rights were not broached in the meeting, “however, the President explained in length, his Philippine domestic policy on the war against drugs.”
“From the body language of the US President, he seem to be in agreement and he made the assurance that President Duterte had a friend in the person of President Trump, that he has been an ally since he was elected into office,” said Roque, as quoted by the state Philippine News Agency.
In May, Trump said Duterte was “doing great” in his campaign against drugs, during which human rights groups say 13,000 people have been killed.